Groucho Marx and THE EXORCIST – You bet your soul

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The infamous 1973 movie The Exorcist will be broadcast tonight at 10:00 p.m. EST on IFC Channel. To quote Yogi Berra (or was it Abraham Lincoln?), if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like. I’ve never had any desire to see the movie, having nearly lost my cookies as a teenager just from reading the original novel.

So why I am writing a blog about it? Because of the wild story I read about its origin. It all started one day when the novel’s author, William Peter Blatty, appeared on Groucho Marx’s TV quiz show “You Bet Your Life.” According to Wikipedia:

“A guest purporting to be a wealthy Arabian prince was actually writer William Peter Blatty. Groucho saw through the disguise, stating, ‘You’re no more a prince than I am because I have an Arabian horse and I know what they look like.’ Blatty won $10,000 and used the leave of absence that the money afforded him to write The Exorcist.”

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So there you have it. Groucho Marx is at least partially responsible for one of cinema’s most painful experiences since The Big Store.

But the Groucho connection doesn’t end there. In an online chat about the movie, Blatty and Exorcist director William Friedkin stated that they had tried to involve Groucho in a practical joke directed at executives from Warner Bros., the movie’s distributor.

During the filming, the execs wanted to see dailies of the movie. Friedkin and Blatty had planned to film Groucho standing at the door when Father Merrin entered the room of the possessed girl, played by Linda Blair. “There would be Linda strapped to the bed,” Blatty said, “and then the duck [“You Bet Your Life’s” mascot] would come down.”

Anyway, if you want to see The Exorcist tonight, have fun with it. For me, the secret word is NO

BTW, here’s the episode in question:

George A. Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD (2005) – There goes the neighborhood

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 Who says you can’t learn anything on summer vacation? Here’s what I learned about zombies from George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead.

• Zombies become “walking dead” when their flesh is eaten by other zombies. They’re not truly dead until a bullet goes through them. (Of course, this is old news now, with the advent of the TV series “The Walking Dead,” but it wasn’t in 2005, when this movie was released.)

• Zombies are endlessly fascinated by fireworks, referred to in this movie as “sky flowers.” A fireworks display could save a zombie-ravaged town singlehandedly.

• As long as they don’t bite you, zombies can be trained as sideshow freaks. In Land, tourists even take souvenir photos of themselves with chained-up zombies.

Unfortunately, the existence of zombies has created a caste system. On the one hand are the wealthy residents of Fiddler’s Green, an indoor mall where the wealthy can live. (Fiddler’s Green is led by Dennis Hopper, so you know it can’t be nice.) Outside Fiddler’s Green are the lower-class citizens who do what they can to survive, including hunting down zombies.

The main plotline is that a go-fer of Hopper’s (John Leguizamo) expresses his resentment at being denied residence in Fiddler’s Green. So he is fired and plans revenge on Hopper. Meanwhile, the zombies have issues of their own. They’re not content to stay in their place, and before long, they’re heading for Fiddler’s Green to have a very dramatic labor dispute with Hopper.

It’s at just this level of semi-seriousness that Land of the Dead surprisingly succeeds. Within this limited milieu, Romero is peerless. There are some great overhead shots of the zombies descending upon the city like flies upon a corpse. And as gory as the movie is, it’s so over-the-top, you start to enjoy the varied and imaginative ways in which this walking-dead-vs.-live-snobs class war is worked out.

The entire cast, especially Simon Baker as a sort of human/zombie mitigater, have miraculously found the right tone for this silliness. However, special commendation must go to Eugene Clark as Big Daddy, the macho zombie leader. In Clark, the spirit of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein thrives.

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Land of the Dead is rated R for much adult language, graphic gore, and intense action.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl in LET’S GET MOVIN’ (1936) – A very moving cartoon

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Olive is getting ready to move from her apartment, singing how happy she is about the move. (Are most people this cheery when they have a day of moving ahead of them?)

Popeye arrives and is eager to help, but Olive scoffs at his offer and laughs that she’s already hired a strong man for the job. (Yeah, ’cause Popeye’s spinach-inspired flights of fancy have never impressed her much.)

Popeye sulks as Bluto the moving man gets Olive all worked up, leading to the inevitable who’s-better contest and the spinach-mainlining. In the end, The Boys’ duel has reduced Olive’s worldly possessions to a single flowerpot — but hey, at least she got the guy with the muscles!

A fairly formulaic cartoon is again saved by the Fleischers’ great perspective work, with Popeye rapidly catching stuff thrown from three stories above him by Bluto.

On a rating scale of 1 to 4 spinach cans, I give this cartoon: CanCanCan

 

SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (1978) – Someone needs to fix the hole

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With Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a splendid time is guaranteed for all…lovers of bad movies, that is. This movie was conceived at a time when wishful thinking about a Beatles reunion was at its peak, and when producer Robert Stigwood and stars The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton could seemingly do no wrong. So Stigwood snapped up the rights to classic Beatles tunes and, with the simple thinking that 3 + 1 = 4, he put Frampton and The Brothers Gibb together to make a quartet. The only problem was, that quartet wasn’t The Beatles.

The plot bears a vague similarity to the great Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine (and please, the resemblance ends there), by way of Sgt. Pepper’s band rescuing Frampton’s girlfriend (named Strawberry Fields in the movie…you know, “Strawberry Fields Forever”?) from some evildoers, particularly a ferocious band played by Aerosmith. But considering that Aerosmith does one of the few decent Beatles cover versions in the movie (“Come Together”), one would wish for Strawberry to come to her senses and become a groupie for the evil band.

But then, this wafer-thin plot is really only an excuse to gather an all-star cast (including Steve Martin, poor guy, in his feature-film debut) and make them warble half-baked versions of Beatles hits. The nadir is probably George Burns doing “Fixing a Hole” (in his throat, from the sound of it).

I suppose you can’t blame Stigwood, the Gibbs, et al. for trying to cash in on a craze. One person you can blame, though, is veteran Beatles producer George Martin, who inexplicably got involved in this mess as its music producer. At the time, Martin supposedly bragged that the soundtrack album shipped more units than the Beatles’ 1967 original album. But when the movie laid a giant egg in theaters across the country, most of those huge shipments were either sent back or were laid to rest in the $1.98 bargain bin. Since then, Martin, whose has appeared in many Beatles tributes (such as the Beatles Anthology video set), has been noticeably reticent about his contribution to this stinker.

As one critic put it at the time, if you listen to the soundtrack album backwards, you can hear Paul McCartney saying, “I wish I was dead! I wish I was dead!”

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) – Quentin Tarantino’s answer to GONE WITH THE WIND

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I’ve never been a huge fan of Westerns – traditional, spaghetti, or otherwise. So I have no yoke to bear when I say that Django Unchained is the best Western I’ve ever seen.

The title character is a pre-Civil War slave (Jamie Foxx) freed by a conniving bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), so that Schultz can hunt down three outlaws only Django can identify. In the midst of this task, Schultz discovers that Django is married to Broomhilda (Kerri Washington), a slave trapped on an infamously brutal plantation named Candieland. Schultz then sets about freeing Broomhilda and reuniting her with Django.

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s calling card is his lack of political correctness, and that’s on full display here. Tarantino merges two way-out-there genres, the spaghetti Western and the blaxploitation flick, to depict ignorant white slave-owners getting what’s coming to them.

Violence-wise, the movie is bathed in blood. The movie also pulls no punches language-wise, dotting its dialogue with the infamous N-word as much as possible. Because of this, many feel that Django‘s treats its raw subject matter – brutal slavery in the South – too lightly and gratuitously.

I don’t agree. Django Unchained is no Blazing Saddles. Look at the character of Stephen, a Candieland slave who is all Uncle Tom on the surface but is actually the brains behind the plantation. Samuel L. Jackson goes all-out to show Stephen as a slave who has triumphed over his Deep South origins and isn’t about to let anyone, white or black, upset the status quo.

I think Tarantino is getting at something here. By showing the ignorance and evil of all who willingly let slavery continue, Django is giving us the flip side of ultra-reverent Southern epics such as Gone with the Wind — and about time, too. Django Unchained is surely not historically accurate, but when it shows moronic slave-owners getting their just desserts, it’s deliciously satisfying.

Happy birthday, Albert Brooks

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Today is the 65th birthday of Albert Brooks — in my humble opinion, one of the funniest men to ever grace the planet.

Brooks has been dubbed in many ways — “the comedian’s comedian,” “the West Coast Woody Allen” — all of which are another way of saying that usually, Brooks is too smart for the room. It’s the reason why much of his work is brilliantly funny, and also probably the reason he doesn’t get bigger box-office for his movies.

In his early days as a comedian, Brooks was part of the “ironic” comedians of the 1970’s (think Steve Martin or Andy Kaufman) who deconstructed stand-up comedy. (On one of countless appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” he did an entire bit about how frustrated he was that he’d run out of comedy material.)

When he started making movies — first as a contributor to the first season of “Saturday Night Live,” then in actual feature films — Brooks adopted a persona in which he was so intent on being hip and “doing the right thing” that he never realized how self-absorbed and obnoxious he was.

This culminated in what I feel is his finest movie achievement: Lost in America (1985), in which a frustrated ad man (Brooks) decides to take his wife, chuck all of their middle-classness, and get out into nature and “touch Indians” — all while touring the country in a 40-foot Winnebago.

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(I’d go into more detail about this delicious, daintily black comedy, except that I’ve already devoted a website to it. If you want to find out more about this movie, please go to lostinamerica.moviefever.com)

Brooks has also done a fine job in playing other people’s characters, having twice been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, for his work in the movies Broadcast News (1987) and Drive (2011).

To brighten your day, I leave you with one of my all-time favorite Brooks bits, in which he does a ventriloquist act with a Speak & Spell toy.

Buster Keaton’s THE BLACKSMITH (1922) – What a (village chest)nut!

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

Buster Keaton said he always began planning his comedies with an opening and an ending, because the middle would take care of itself. The Blacksmith is a funny beginning and a superb ending in search of a substantial middle.

The movie begins as a parody of Longfellow’s famous poem “The Village Blacksmith,” probably more familiar these days to Looney Tunes cartoon buffs than it is to middle-schoolers. (Daffy Duck robotically starts to recite it near the end of Duck Amuck [1953].) Buster, it seems, is the poem’s anti-hero version. (The first shot is of “village smithy” Buster standing under an L.A. palm tree, not the “spreading chestnut” of the poem.)

After a couple more verses, the movie quickly loses in interest in satire and, like Tex Avery’s later Warner Bros. cartoon The Village Smithy (1936 – see what I mean?), is more interested in using the source as a springboard for gags, which here range from great to terrible. The good stuff shows Buster being both a “horse whisperer” and a shoe salesman to a horse in need of new shoes. (Like Chaplin’s Tramp, Buster can pretty well transform himself into whatever the current situation dictates he needs to be. If a horse needs shoeing, Buster goes out of his way to meet the horse’s hoof size and comfort level. Thom McAn never had a better spokesperson.)

The movie’s nadir is Buster trying to do his work while he’s obliviously and systematically destroying a brand-new Rolls-Royce that has been brought in for minor repair work. Keaton biographer Marion Meade posits that this is probably the same car given to Keaton by his much-despised in-laws, which would explain his joy in destroying it. But this joy doesn’t extend to the movie’s audience – especially those in 1922, who probably gasped at seeing such a luxurious car being torn apart.

Beyond that, the gags are hit-and-miss, the best one being where it looks as though Buster is about to get run over by an oncoming train, only to have (through trick photography) the train stop within just a few inches of him. (Joel and Ethan Coen pulled an extremely similar fast one 65 years later, involving a baby and a car, in Raising Arizona [1987].)

And the final gag is a beaut, with Buster pulling down a shade with “The End” written on it, after having shown us that he won the heart of one of his customers who he married on a whim. The problem is that this final scene comes out of nowhere. One minute the woman is snubbing him; just a few minutes later, without even a scene of courtship, she’s running off to elope with him. Could this have reflected Keaton’s mirror-image fantasy of his unhappy marriage to his then-wife Natalie Talmadge?

Granted, maybe one shouldn’t read too much into the final marriage scene and the obliterated Rolls-Royce – but one is tempted to do so only because there’s not much else to reflect upon here. Happily, Keaton’s style would soon evolve exponentially over the gags-for-gags’-sake stuff reflected in The Blacksmith.