Chris Rock’s I THINK I LOVE MY WIFE (2007) – Not a very thought-out comedy

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Don’t let the R rating fool you. The title of Chris Rock’s comedy I Think I Love My Wife reflects the timidity of its subject matter and of Rock’s movie persona — which, strangely, is at direct odds with his funny, smart, and incisive stand-up act.

Rock’s minimal impact might be somewhat excusable if he was just passing through the movie, but since he also co-wrote and directed it, he shoulders much of the blame for this non-comedy. Rock plays Richard Cooper, a high-rolling executive who’s too dumb to realize he’s having a mid-life crisis. Richard has a seemingly happy family life, but every time a curvy woman passes by, his eyes get roving and his marriage gets itchier.

Kerry Washington plays Nikki Tru, a character whose problems start with that porn-star name. And unfortunately for Washington — whose talent has shone brightly in films such as Save the Last Dance — writer Rock has done little to raise her character above that level.

Nikki, an old friend of Richard’s, is what kinder people would call “on the prowl” and cattier people would dub “a player.” The first time Nikki shows up unannounced at Richard’s office, wearing a barely-there red skirt, the office’s females size her up with an unflattering accuracy. (Her idea of a fun time is to throw dollar bills out Richard’s office window and watch pedestrians skitter to grab them.)

For a good (actually bad) part of the movie, Richard is surprisingly dumb about Nikki’s intentions. Whereas any smart married man would have security officers quietly remove Nikki from the building, Richard continually chats up Nikki behind closed doors and then wonders why everyone bad-mouths her.

The audience knows where this is going long before Richard (and, seemingly, writer Rock) ever do. Nikki strings Richard along for a while, eventually he cuts her off, then he misses the thrill of the hunt and seeks her out all over again. And even though there’s every reason to sympathize with Richard’s wife Brenda, Gina Torres plays her mostly as an uptight, demanding prig.

The movie exhausts every cheatin’-heart cliché you’ve ever seen. Rock has acknowledged Woody Allen as a comedic influence, and sadly, a bit where Richard tries to discreetly purchase condoms is a direct steal from Allen’s comedy Bananas. And the scene where Richard deals with the prolonged effects of Viagra is as, er, painfully protracted as Richard is.

The movie’s sole bright spot is Steve Buscemi as George, Richard’s philandering co-worker. Even though George is a cheater himself, he offers marital advice because he knows Richard’s in over his head. George is the only novel conceit in a movie that otherwise comes off as an R-rated episode of “Love, American Style.”

Popeye, Olive Oyl, and Bluto in I NEVER CHANGES MY ALTITUDE (1937) – Great comedy takes flight

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In another of the Fleischers’ astounding 3D shots (almost routine by now), the camera pans across an airport and settles in on “Olive Oyl’s Lunch Room – Come Down and See Me Sometime!” But the lunchroom is closed, and on its stoop sits a crying Popeye, reading Olive Oyl’s “Dear John” letter about how she has run away with an aviator. Er, this particular flyer wouldn’t be burly and bushy, now, would he?

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Well, be careful what you wish for — thousands of feet in the air, Bluto is flying and telling Olive to hurry up with painting the back of the airplane. When Olive complains, Bluto tries to knock her off the plane to a sure death. Popeye sees the fracas and singlehandedly readies a plane for flying to Olive’s rescue (Why does this guy need spinach, anyway?). To nobody’s great surprise, Popeye and Bluto get into an aerial whizzing contest that puts most war-movie footage to shame.

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Another great cartoon packed with wild perspective shots and “thrill” gags. But why does poor Popeye let that two-faced Olive suck up to him again at cartoon’s end?

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

Popeye and Olive Oyl in BULLDOZING THE BULL (1938) – Popeye, the animal rights activist

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A barker in front of a bullfighting arena offers a free ticket to Popeye to see a bullfight, but he tears up the ticket because bullfighting is “inkind to aminals.” But when sultry senorita Olive Oyl (reprising her make-up routine from For Better or Worser) enters the arena, Popeye drops his animal-rights pose and puts the ticket back together to get in.

Popeye is mistaken for the toreador and is tossed into the ring. He still refuses to fight the bull, at least until the bull threatens Olive.

The perfect Popeye combination platter: wonderfully fluid animation, zippy plotline, and superb gags (two prize-winners: the bull’s bull-friends cheering him on, and Popeye’s wacko post-spinach toreador get-up). In a novel approach to the Fleischers’ usual how-do-we-work-in-the-spinach dilemma, a booing crowd angrily throws vegetables at Popeye, including you-know-what. (But why canned spinach among the fresh veggies? Oh, well, at least they got it in.)

A delight from start to end (and for cartoon buffs, a perfect bookend to Bugs Bunny’s later bullfighting gem Bully for Bugs [1953].)

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

Laurel & Hardy in BLOCK-HEADS (1938) – Plotless, but hardly humorless

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt tells us that Block-Heads came about primarily because producer Hal Roach, trying to complete a financial deal, needed a movie fast — and the movie does nothing to belie its origins. Block-Heads might well be the most plotless thing you’ve ever seen in your life. But from such mere gossamer can charming comedies sometimes be made.

L&H films such as One Good Turn examine what happens to Ollie when his bullying ways are turned back upon him. The start of Block-Heads takes the opposite tack: What if Ollie was relentlessly nice to Stan? The film begins in a World War I trench, with Ollie joining his fellow soldiers to go over the hill while Stan remains to guard the trench. With classic understatement, Stan says to Ollie, “Gee, I wish I was going with you,” as if Ollie was heading off to Disney World. Ollie warmly promises Stan that he’ll return for him.

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Without giving too much away (including some superb reactions from Stan in the trench), suffice to say that Stan and Ollie are reunited twenty years later under circumstances that could only happen to them. And when Ollie makes a mistaken assumption about the returned-from-battle Stan, he is jaw-droppingly indulgent of him — even when he receives the usual physical calamity as a result of Stan’s ineptitude. No camera looks, nothing. Perhaps this is what Stan and Ollie’s ideal world really looks like.

Before long, things are back to normal (or, to paraphrase Ollie’s remark to Stan, things are better now). From there, the movie gets by on what we already know about Stan and Ollie; at this point in their movie career, the relationship between L&H and the audience is like a solid marriage, so that we laugh even when gags are pretty much put across in shorthand. (One wonders what Freudians make of Stan “smoking” his thumb as though it was a pipe.)

Once The Boys return from the war setting, there’s no reason Block-Heads should be as charming and funny as it is (especially when it goes into a bald-faced re-working of their short Unaccustomed as We Are). But the movie sails along like a morning breeze, slightly otherworldly in its tone (check out that lone punch bowl that survives a Stan-inspired explosion), but still not as far removed from reality as their later, cartoony Saps at Sea. It’s a pretty nice place to be, especially with Stan and Ollie as our guides.

R.I.P., Groucho Marx (1890-1977)

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I have always resented the way that Elvis Presley stole Groucho Marx’s thunder by dying three days ahead of Groucho just for the publicity.

Now, I really do know that Elvis didn’t do it on purpose. And I’m sure Elvis, if he’d had a choice, might have wanted to grace this Earth a little longer. (As for Groucho in his 1977 state, I’m not so sure.)

But it is a fact that after all possible superlatives were used to describe Elvis on the day of his death (Aug. 16, 1977), by the time Groucho kicked off, the press seemed to be fresh out of tributes. TIME magazine — who had allowed The Marx Brothers to grace their cover 45 years previously — gave Groucho’s obit a measly paragraph of text. Woody Allen responded by writing a letter to TIME’s editor asking, “Is it my imagination, or were you guys a little skimpy with the Groucho Marx obituary?”

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But in the end, it all evened out. While Elvis has had hundreds or thousands of people making a living by imitating him, only one person has done justice to Groucho — Frank Ferrante (above), whose flawless impersonation of Groucho graces hundreds of live performances across the nation each year.

And happily, we still have all of the work that Groucho left behind for us to savor. Humorous books for which he took great pride in claiming authorship. His huge body of radio and TV work, much of it revolving around his immortal (in reruns, anyway) quiz show “You Bet Your Life.” And the dry humor and trenchant sarcasm of his movie appearances, with and without his famous brothers (though the best movies include his siblings).

If Groucho’d had a say in it, he probably would have indeed claimed that Elvis was just trying to upstage him in death. And then, most likely, he would have sung this:

SWEENEY TODD (2007) – Shave and a haircut, two slits!

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I came to Sweeney Todd with a clean slate, as it were. I’d never seen any of the previous stage or screen versions, and I’m generally adverse to the archly ironic style of Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim.

All of that said, I was thoroughly delighted by director Tim Burton’s version of the story. As with Burton’s best work, it’s moviemaking at its Grand Guignol finest.

For those even more ignorant of the story than I waws, Johnny Depp plays the title role, or should I say evolves into it. Initially, his character is named Benjamin Barker, and he’s a happily married father in Victorian London.

But an evil judge named Turpin (Alan Rickman at his oil-slick smoothest) lusts after Barker’s wife. So he wrongly sentences Barker to prison, seduces and poisoningly induces Barker’s wife, and takes Barker’s baby daughter as his “charge,” to await the day when she is old enough to marry him.

Fifteen years later, Barker escapes from prison, returns to London, and adopts the persona of barber Sweeney Todd. At first, he intends only upon avenging Turpin. But he soon discovers he has an other-barberly way with a razor. And as it happens, Todd’s landlady (Helena Bonham Carter), an unsuccessful baker, could use some fresh ingredients to sell her pies.

Oh, and this is a musical, too — albeit the bloodiest musical ever, with shot after shot of Todd severing the necks of bourgeois customers whom he feels have it coming.

So why do I heartily recommend such a gruesome offering? For one thing, the script (by John Logan, an avid Todd buff) and Burton’s elegant direction take the story its bare bones, with vivid characterization and crisp plotting and timing.

Of course, the actors contribute much as well. And every last one of them — including Sacha Baron Cohen, whose Borat business turned me off — sing and act wonderfully, taking some of the sting off the movie’s black-comedy ickiness.

Johnny Depp, again, takes major chances and scores. The feyness of Burton/Depp collaborations such as Ed Wood and Willie Wonka is gone. In its place is Todd’s grisly dark confidence and rationality of his murdering ways — the ultimate depiction of the maxim “Be careful what you wish for.”

Its dark themes aside, Sweeney Todd was 2007’s entry in an apparent renaissance of the movie musical — and justifiably so.

 

Popeye and Olive Oyl in WIMMEN HADN’T OUGHTA DRIVE (1940) – The mother lode of driving-humor cliches

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Popeye bites the bullet and uses his brand-new roadster to “learn” Olive Oyl how to drive.

A few good gags, but this is mostly the template for countless sitcoms of ensuing decades, featuring clueless females trying to man the wheel as their men look on in fright. (Why don’t we ever get to see a clueless man at his first attempt to drive a car?) Also, some of the gags are straight out of Laurel & Hardy and W.C. Fields, such as when Olive interprets Popeye’s instructions literally (e.g., “Throw out the clutch”). Some laughs, but more often a test of endurance.

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