CRISIS IN SIX SCENES – Woody Allen is his old(er) self

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If you enjoy vintage Woody Allen, don’t let the critics discourage you from seeing his Amazon TV series, Crisis in Six Scenes. In TV terms, it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, and it wasn’t intended to do so. It’s a screwball comedy that delivers a fair share of laughs — a far greater share, in fact, than any of Allen’s most recent movie comedies have garnered.

The six-episode series is set in the 1960’s. Allen plays Sid (or “S.J.,” in his more pretentious moments) Munsinger, a semi-successful novelist and former copywriter who is now trying to sell a TV sitcom. Elaine May plays Kay, a marriage counselor and Sid’s quietly grounded wife. Their happy middle-class existence gets thrown for a loop by Lennie (a surprisingly funny Miley Cyrus), a radical on the run who needs a place to hide out while she plans her exodus to Cuba.

Lennie has an unexpected effect on everyone who saunters through the Munsinger household. She radicalizes Alan (John Magaro), a young friend of the family who is already engaged to a girl Sid had set him up with. And Lennie transforms Kay’s thinking to the point that she brings Chairman Mao’s writings and similar Communist-fueled work to the book club she runs.

This could have been a one-joke concept, but Allen gets a lot of funny plot threads out of it. Lennie dismisses the Munsingers as “limousine liberals,” but meanwhile she’s eating them out of house and home while she bemoans the children overseas who are starving to death. And you haven’t lived until you have seen a bunch of elderly book-club members get their revolutionary fire lit. (When one of them suggests that they all go to the local draft board and protest by sitting naked in front of it, one prim woman says that stripping to her bra and panties is as much as she can handle.)

The worst that you can say about the series is that it’s a bit leisurely paced, but in these days of rapid-fire entertainment, that might just be a virtue. And the final episode wraps things up in best farcical style, as a parade of ever more eccentric visitors come through Sid’s front door.

Cable TV has now set the bar so high that many viewers and critics take it as a personal offense if each new series doesn’t try to change the face of television. Crisis in Six Scenes is funny — just simply funny. Would that more TV comedies would aim for that modest goal.

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THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER (1975) and THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER (1977) – Gene Wilder hits the wall

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother and The World’s Greatest Lover were Gene Wilder’s writing-directing award from Twentieth Century-Fox for having collaborated with Mel Brooks on Fox’s hit comedy Young Frankenstein. Unfortunately, both movies suffer from the same malady: They want very badly to be Mel Brooks movies. (Brother even has a cameo appearance from Brooks, albeit in voice only.)

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Brother provides a self-explanatory title. Wilder plays Sigerson Holmes, the brilliant but highly neurotic brother of the famed detective. Sherlock decides to pass one of his cases on to the much-overlooked Sigerson to resolve. It happens to be a case in which the entire country of Britain hangs in the balance. Sigerson is aided by Scotland Yard records clerk Orville Sacker (Marty Feldman) and music-hall singer Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn).

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Kahn, Wilder, and Feldman.

There are two primary problems with this movie. The first problem is that we never get a sense of Sigerson as a real character. When Sacker first encounters Sigerson and asks him if he has a brother named Sherlock, Sigerson haughtily replies that his brother’s name should be properly pronounced as “Sheer Luck.” This gets us anticipating a rich plot about Sigerson’s trying to overcome his past (just as Dr. “Fronkensteen” did in Young Frankenstein).

Unfortunately, the sibling-rivalry element pretty much ends right there. If the movie didn’t keep hammering the point home, we’d never know that Sigerson is related in any way to Sherlock.

That’s because the movie keeps going off on crazy tangents. In fact, nearly every character in the movie is crazy (or at least acts that way), even Sherlock’s famed archenemy Prof. Moriarty (Leo McKern). From the very first scene, nobody has a normal reaction to any unusual situation — it’s all pitched at Mel Brooks gaga-shtick level. So you don’t feel that you really have a stake in any of the characters. As a result, a number of elaborate set-pieces — and the movie is extremely well-mounted, with great period detail — all add up to nothing but frantic activity.

It’s not for lack of trying. Feldman, Kahn, Dom DeLuise, McKern, and Roy Kinnear (McKern’s co-star in The Beatles’ Help!) give it their all, but they’re only halfway successful. Yet of the two movies, at least Brother is more good-natured and tolerable than…
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The World’s Greatest Lover appears to have been Wilder’s effort to prove that he was another Charlie Chaplin, in both slapstick (some painfully forced physical comedy at the movie’s start) and pathos (the movie takes its last half-hour most seriously after the labored farce of its first 60 minutes).

The movie is set in the silent-film era and concerns a movie studio that is trying to find a successful counterpart to rival Paramount’s Rudolph Valentino. The studio runs an ad telling men all over the country that they can come to Hollywood to audition for the role of “The World’s Greatest Lover.” One of the auditioners is Rudy Hickman (Wilder), an inept baker from Milwaukee.

The movie might have been fairly funny if its story had been presented at face value. But from the get-go, Wilder and most of the cast mug shamelessly and do everything they can to convince us that they’re hilarious, rather than just letting the story roll out on its own.

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About the only grace notes are supplied by Carol Kane as Annie, Rudy’s timid and long-suffering wife. Kane is the one person in the movie who doesn’t oversell the comedy. And you end up feeling a lot of sympathy for Annie (probably more than Wilder intended) because Rudy is such a hyperactive, bullying, sex-crazed wacko that you wonder how Annie has ever put up with him. 

Unlike Smarter Brother (which at least had a milder tone), everything here is pitched to the rafters — at least until Wilder tries for pathos in the film’s last third. But, as happened so often with Jerry Lewis in his heyday, the movie has been done in such a comic-book style that its pathos is unearned.

Surprisingly, both of these movies were modest successes on their first release, but with only a couple of exceptions in the following decade (The Woman in Red and the disastrous Haunted Honeymoon), these movies pretty much ended Wilder’s turn as an auteur.

Four decades later, movie buffs are still praising Wilder’s writing and acting in Young Frankenstein, and with good reason. You’ll notice that even YF fans aren’t exactly clamoring for a revival of either The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother or The World’s Greatest Lover — and there’s a reason for that, too.

(Nevertheless, I’ve embedded both movies below, mainly because they’re available for free on YouTube. If you can make it very far through either movie, look for the surprise cameos: Albert Finney and the aforementioned Brooks in Brother, and an early walk-on for Danny DeVito in Lover.)

Laurel & Hardy in OUR RELATIONS (1936) – Two Laurel & Hardys for the price of one

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The following is my second of two contributions to the Dual Roles Blogathon, being held Sept. 30 through Oct. 2, 2016 by, appropriately enough, dual bloggers: Christina Wehner, and Ruth at Silver Screenings. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ critiques of movies where actors play more than one role!

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Our Relations is a huge step forward for Laurel & Hardy in feature films. After the episodic nature of most of their feature films to date, the movie suddenly resolves many of the problems Laurel faced in making their films longer yet more palatable. This movie sports tasty production values, glistening cinematography (by Rudolph Mate), and a solid storyline.

It even uses the dual-role motif (last used very weakly in the short Twice Two) to satisfying effect. Here, Stan and Ollie come across an old photo of their twin brothers Alf and Bert, whom we are told are the black sheep of the family. Stan and Ollie haven’t told their wives about their darker halves, so they burn the photo (“We’ll burn our past behind us,” Ollie intones), thinking that will end the story. Guess who makes it to port shortly after that.

It must be said that Stan and Ollie have a radical notion of “black sheep.” Considering that Alf and Bert eventually get locked in a hotel room by their conniving captain (James Finlayson), their concept of worldliness wouldn’t fool a kindergartener. Nevertheless, it makes for a nice farce when the two pairs get mistaken for each other over and over.

The movie’s nicest surprise is how well Stan and Ollie actually get on with their wives. Stan’s wife is a tall blonde (Betty Healy) whom he refers to as “Bubbles,” and frankly, she’s almost nice enough for Stan to seem unworthy of her. Ollie’s spouse is the diminutive but ever powerful Daphne Pollard, yet she’s far more loving than she was in Thicker Than Water. When the wives eventually get indignant, it’s because of their sorrow at the (mistaken) thought of having been two-timed, not because they’re gun-toting maniacs. It makes you wish that the rest of The Boys’ movies had similarly vulnerable females.

Except for a couple of sequences that are prolonged beyond their comedic effect (a tousle with perennial drunk Arthur Housman, the waterfront finale where The Boys are placed in peril), Our Relations is one of Laurel & Hardy’s most thoroughly satisfying feature films.

If you enjoyed reading this blog entry, click here to read my first entry in the Dual Roles Blogathon: Buster Keaton in The Playhouse.)

Buster Keaton in THE PLAYHOUSE (1921) – Multiple Busters

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The following is my first of two contributions to the Dual Roles Blogathon, being held Sept. 30 through Oct. 2, 2016 by, appropriately enough, dual bloggers: Christina Wehner, and Ruth at Silver Screenings. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ critiques of movies where actors play more than one role!

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Everyone remembers the first half of The Playhouse, and for darned good reason. But the second half is nothing to sneer at, either.

The movie’s first half is an astounding piece of special-effects wizardry that must have nearly shocked audiences in 1920 and is still great to watch in this CGI era. Buster buys a ticket and enters a live-show theatre with nothing but multiple Busters – including a shot of nine separate Busters dancing in sync. As one of the patrons (another Buster) tells his wife (also Buster), “This fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show.” (A shot of the play’s program confirms this, with Buster taking every credit possible. This was a lampoon of Thomas Ince, a contemporary of Buster’s and a credit-happy Western-maker, and the gag still works in these days of “A Film By…”)

The trick-shot was done by taping up eight-ninths of the camera lens, filming Buster doing his routine, rolling the film back, and doing it all over again with the other eight-ninths of the lens. It’s no small feat, especially when two on-screen Busters react to each other as though they were really there. It’s terrific.

The whole sequence turns out to have been a dream of Buster the stagehand, who has his sleep rudely interrupted by a man (Joe Roberts) who appears to be evicting Buster from his apartment. Then the walls of the “apartment” come down, and we find that Buster was on-stage, sleeping on the job. After that, the viewer might as well give up trying to puzzle this thing out and just go along for the ride.

The ride includes twin actresses (one of whom is having an affair with Buster, but he can never tell which is which); Buster’s dead-on impersonation of a chimpanzee; and a wild climax in which everyone is swimming for his life in the orchestra pit. (Don’t ask, just watch.)

The Playhouse gives you more bang for the buck in every sense: two reels of priceless comedy, and two-dozen Busters for the price of one.

(If you enjoyed this blog entry, please click here to read my second contribution to the Dual Roles Blogathon: Laurel & Hardy in Our Relations.)

Just one week until THE MONTY PYTHON MOVIE BLOGATHON!

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Only one week remains until we launch The Monty Python Movie Blogathon!

The blogathon is open to anyone who wants to write about movies made by the members of Monty Python, either as a group or individually. Thus far, the only “team” movies that have been taken are Holy Grail and The Meaning of Life, so there are still plenty of choices up for grabs.

Click here for the complete rules of the blogathon, and be sure to check back next Saturday to read some great blog entries!

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The worst song of the 1980’s??

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(Photo credit: Xavier Arnau, Getty.)

Did you know that Starship’s “We Built This City” is widely regarded as the single worst song of the 1980’s? I didn’t know the song had claimed such a designation until GQ posted an oral history of the song and those who were involved in the creation of it. (Click here to read the GQ article.)

Now, I’m not any defender of Starship. But I’d hardly call “We Built This City” the worst song of its decade. For one thing, we’re talking about the 1980’s, an era that was rife with musical landmines. So you really have to get down and dirty to call any song the worst of the ’80s. “We Built This City” is at least catchy and listenable, with even a minor attempt at social statement.

For me, a truly bad song, like a truly bad movie, is like a greasy, barbecued pork chop — it’s so full of all the wrong ingredients that you savor it like a guilty pleasure. And out of all the pop-music drek of the 1980’s, there’s only one song that stands out in that manner for me: Benny Mardones’ “Into the Night.”

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For one thing, this song has an amazingly checkered history. Mardones first recorded and released it in 1980. The song peaked at # 11 for two weeks on Billboard‘s “Top 100.” After that, it should have glided into obscurity. But nine years later, an Arizona DJ added the song to his playlist and gave it a second life. (That was the year when I first heard the song, introduced by a local DJ who dubbed its vocalist “Benny Mar-dumb-ass.”)

The lyrics alone are enough to induct this tune into Bad Song Heaven. Mr. Mardones’ first words in the song are, “‘She’s just 16 years old/Leave her alone’, they said.” If you’re not 16 years old yourself, and somebody has to advise you not to mess with a 16-year-old, red flags should be going up everywhere.

But the singer rationalizes that he and the jailbait are simply “separated by fools/Who don’t know what love is yet.” Yes, because how could anyone other than the singer know what true love means, right?

After the chorus (into which we’ll deep-dive momentarily), Mardones goes on to sing, “It’s like having a dream/Where nobody hides a heart.” I don’t know about you, but after witnessing the heart-surgery scene in the offbeat movie musical All That Jazz, I’m quite content for everyone to hide their hearts for all eternity.

Mardones goes on to tell his true love, “I would wait ’til the end/Of time for you/And do it again. It’s true!” Do what again? Violate state laws to try to have his way with this naive woman?

Mardones continues to utter more true-love banalities before delivering a melodramatic middle-eight where he screams in agony over…again, what? His blue nether regions?

Finally, he finishes the song by agonizingly repeating its chorus: “If I could fly/I’d pick you up/And take you into the night/And show you my love.” He keeps repeating the chorus ever more wrenchingly, until you finally get the impression that he’s getting quite the hernia just from picking this girl up.

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Remember Steve Martin at the end of “The Man with Two Brains”?

So there’s my choice for the worst song of the 1980’s. Do you disagree? Do you have an alternate choice? Feel free to comment. Meanwhile, here’s Benny Mardones’ original 1980 video for the song.