Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category

Movie Reviews 460 – Innocent Blood (1992)

December 3, 2020

Comedies often resort to mixing elements that are immiscible, like oil and water, and having them collide to generate laughs.  Director John Landis was well versed and successful with the formula for such films as Trading Places (rich vs. poor) and Animal House (nobility vs. plebeians).  For Innocent Blood he cast a wider net and made a horror comedy in which a vampire accidentally transmogrifies a mobster kingpin to join the undead, and consequently raises the prospect of him passing on the superpowers that go along with being a bloodsucker onto his underlings and henchmen.

Marie (Anne Parillaud of La Femme Nikita fame) is a conscientious and benevolent vampire roaming the streets of Pittsburgh who carefully chooses her victims, sparing good souls and feasting only ‘less admirable’ human specimens. Venturing out onto the streets for new blood only when absolutely needed, she also makes sure her victims do not fully transform into vampires themselves and end up cursed as she is and creating more victims in their wake.

It is on such a feeding-time night stroll that she bumps into ‘wiseguy’ Gennaro (Anthony LaPaglia) as a group of mafiosi leave a restaurant. But sensing Gennaro’s inner righteousness she spares him, instead ending up getting a Limo ride from the don himself, “Sal the Shark” Macelli (Robert Loggia). She has no qualms taking a bite out of him when given the opportunity, but is interrupted before she can deliver a permanent death. Whisked to a mortuary and awaiting an official autopsy, Sal awakens and soon realizes that he no longer has to worry about hindrances like knives or bullets. He then latches onto the idea of turning his own men into vampires eventually creating an unstoppable ‘famiglia’.

Gennaro it turns out, is not a hood at all but an undercover cop who had been working for years to take down Sal’s operation. But recent events have exposed his infiltration and he now intends to fulfill his quest despite being thrown off the case. He finds a surprise helping hand from Maria trying to undo the damage her own actions have unleashed.

Interestingly this comedy sports an R rating, a rarity for that genre, due to scenes of Maria prancing totally nude. But if there were any doubts about it being a comedy the casting of Don Rickles as Sal’s legal beagle should put those thoughts to rest. Other offbeat casting choices that mirror the content include everyone’s favorite Muppetteer Frank Oz (with the unmistakable voice of Bert, Fozzie Bear and Yoda), a cameos by horror stars Dario Argento, Tom Savini, Linnea Quigley, Sam Raimi and even Forrest J. AckermanAngela Bassett plays Gennaro’s boss and you can also check out Tony Siroco, David Proval and Anthony Sisto as goombas long before they were reunited in similar roles in The Sopranos.

The casting is evidence of Landis’ reverence for horror cinema classics and those homages are also seen on the various background television sets playing horror classics throughout the film that you can enjoy as an added drinking game. There is plenty of carnage among the chuckles if any of the aforementioned weren’t enough to warrant a view.

Vampires can also learn a lesson or two such as if you’re going to eat “Italian”, watch out for that garlic.

Movie Reviews 459 – Samurai Fiction (1998)

November 27, 2020

Nobody will ever accuse Japanese filmmakers of not pushing boundaries and trying new things and Samurai Fiction is another fine example of that. The similarity in title to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is no coincidence although it has more in common with the maverick director’s Kill Bill duology. The primary homage of this black comedy however is for that country’s celebrated samurai films of old going back to the Akira Kurusawa classics, even going so far as to be filmed in black and white. With a bit of a twist of course.

The tale begins when a rogue samurai named Kazamatsuri (Tomoyasu Hotei) kills a fellow clan member and runs off with a coveted sword given to the clan by a shogun. The clan’s chief councilor is hesitant to send a recovery squad but his son Heishiro (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) and his two best friends decide to retrieve the sword themselves. The self proclaimed ‘Three Stooges’ catch up with Kazamatsuri and promptly get their collective asses whooped before a stranger can put a halt to the fight. The wounded Heishiro is taken in by the interloper Hanbei (Morio Kazama) and his daughter Koharu (Tamaki Ogawa) but only after one of Heishiro’s friends dies at the hand of Kazamatsuri. As Heishiro recuperates Kazamatsuri takes up with a den of gamblers run by Lady Okatsu (Mari Natsuki) who tries to lure him as a business partner. When word gets back to Heishiro’s father of Kazamuri’s whereabouts he sends two ninja assassins to try to get Okatsu to poison Kazamuri.

As you can see the plot is quite convoluted but the one outstanding question that never gets answered is why did Kazamatsuri steal the sword in the first place and why won’t he just give it back? The stark contrasts between the solemn Kazamatsuri persona and the flighty Heishiro is just a sample of what makes this film so odd and hard to peg. More interesting is the background of the noble Hanbei and his ‘daughter’ (note the quotes) which does get addressed. Fans in Japan would have instantly recognized the casting of Hotei, a celebrated rock star there, and unsurprisingly the musical soundtrack reflects that with rollicking guitar riffs overlaying the traditional taiko drums. Despite the Tarantino influence there is not a lot going on from a martial arts action point of view, what little fighting shown being almost slapstick in nature.

The opening credits include a ‘part 1’ subtitle which may have been another nod to Tarantino’s Kill Bill ‘parts’ but a ‘part 2’, Stereo Future was supposedly filmed a few years later although there doesn’t seem to be much information regarding its content, at least none that I could find and director Hiroyuki Nakano has since gone on to directing documentaries

One thing that had me stumped with a Matrix Red Pill, Blue Pill like choice was when I first opened my dual DVD case. The DVD sleeve, sparse to begin with, makes no mention of it at all but there staring me in the face were two discs exactly like one another except one with a red label and the other a white label. Even a quick online search eluded me as to what was the difference so I had to plop it into my player to confirm that it was just a bunch of extra features (“Making of”, trailers, etc) along with the colorized versions of some select scenes.

This was clearly a work of passion for the director, however I would say a tad overambitious. It’s not bad but not as polished as I was hoping.

 

Movie Reviews 458 – Avanti! (1972)

November 19, 2020

Director Billy Wilder knew a good thing when he saw one and after having a huge hit with Some Like it Hot he made six more movies with star Jack Lemmon. Being a fan of both I really thought I knew all their collaborative films, but it seems one fell through the cracks. Aside from the aforementioned, their films include The Apartment, Irma La Douce, and The Front Page, which are all great films. So how come I’ve never even heard about Avanti!? I did not pay much attention to the cover of my DVD when I sat down for a recent viewing so was tickled to see Wilder in the opening credits and hoped that their synergies would be as successful here as in those others.

The story is about jet setting industrialist Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Lemmon) having to make a dash to Italy after receiving the news that his father had passed away in a car accident. Once there he is shocked to learn that he died while having a lifelong illicit affair with a woman and that they met there once every year like clockwork . As he makes his way by plane, boat and train Wendell repeatedly crosses paths with Pamela (Juliet Mills of Nanny and the Professor fame) who happens to be the daughter of his father’s mistress and whose mother also perished in the same accident as Wendell’s dad.

The polar opposites clash at every turn as Wendell tries to have his father’s body transported back home to have a proper burial while keeping the affair hushed. The pair have to deal with clergy, attorney’s, a family of mobster’s whose property was damaged during the accident, a representative of the State Department and various hotel staff with a few secrets of their own.

The title is in reference to a recurring gag in the film in that in Italian one asks “Permesso?” to enter an occupied room and “Avanti!” being the affirmative response. This is one of those wily films in which nefarious deeds and people are caught in compromising positions and constantly being interrupted by door knocks. This film has a lot of surprises to be sure but at the top of that list has to be the number of nudity scenes with both stars. In line with the more liberal Italian setting you not only see Jack’s jiggly butt, but Juliet’s jubblies aplenty.

I’m sure I don’t have to paint a picture as to how the relationship ends up.I did find that one of the standout dated misogynist concepts was that it was fine for a man to have an affair while married while the unwed mistress is expected to stick around and be second fiddle for years on end. That aside, the film is funny and the chemistry works. The Italian setting, while making use of some clichés, is delightful.

A bit of a square peg in a round hole, I suspect the nudity may have hampered it’s distribution and television broadcasts and hence the reason for me not knowing about this film earlier. This may also explain why the film was lauded by plenty of Golden Globe nods, but totally ignored by the Academy Awards. While not in the same league as their other classics I would say that you will not be disappointed by this one, and the disparity to those other films does have a charm of its own.

Should you watch this one? I say “Avanti!”

Movie Reviews 457 – The Thin Man (1934)

November 6, 2020

Novelist Dashiell Hammett will forever be identified by his signature hard-boiled detective Sam Spade and The Maltese Falcon but just as much a treasure is his novel The Thin Man. That acclaim is largely due to the film adaptation and the stellar performances by William Powell and Myrna Loy in the roles of Nick and Nora Charles, the tippling erstwhile detective and his equally imbibing socialite wife.

The ‘thin man’ in the title refers to an inventor who suddenly goes missing when his secretary/mistress is found dead, making him the prime suspect. Nick and Nora are in town celebrating a Christmas holiday and Nick is reluctantly drawn into the mystery as more bodies pile up lending credence to the notion of the inventor being responsible. Nick emphatically refuses to work the case, preferring to work on dry martinis instead, while everyone including the police seem to rely on his renown mystery solving abilities. In the end Nick has established who is the murderer and holds a large dinner party with everyone linked to the case invited (or coerced) to attend where he finally reveals the culprit.

While the comedy takes center stage, the clues and scenarios are intricate with lots of surprises providing an entertaining whodunnit on it’s own merits. Among the many roles we have the usual motley of family members, indiscreet liaisons and mobsters to name just to name a few of the suspects. Even the clues that are unearthed (literally) are not always what they seem.

No matter how wrapped up you get in the case however, all the guesswork falls to the side whenever Powell and Loy and their snowy white dog Asta are onscreen. The couple, ever sparring with one another and yet unmistakable an inseparable pair, are simply mesmerizing. Their smoothly delivered banter is hilarious and surprisingly was often filmed while the two were merely rehearsing and using unscripted dialog. To say that they had onscreen chemistry is an understatement.  Even shots of Powell just fooling around on the set were so fun and in character they made it into the film.

Sadly, Hammett was one of the many writers who would be unfairly blacklisted by Hollywood’s infamous Red Scare under the auspices of HUAC McCarthy witch hunt hearings. While this was in the latter period of his life one can only wonder if that deprived us of other fine characters.

The Thin Man was an immediate hit and while Hammett never wrote any more books featuring the dynamic couple Hollywood plodded on with several sequels. I ended up picking up the Silver Screen Icons DVD set that has the first four films; The Thin Man, After the Thin Man, Another Thin Man, and The Shadow of the Thin Man. There are two additional movies that I have yet to track down, The Thin Man Goes Home and finally A Song for the Thin Man. Not bad for what was originally considered a B movie.

Movie Reviews 455 – The Lost Boys (1987)

October 23, 2020

 

 

Up until the 70’s any depiction of vampires in films were almost uniquely those in Victorian Gothic settings, the classical representation true to the mythological origins of the creature. The 70’s did give us a few counter-culture ‘modern’ vampires living in contemporary times, but even those were not the typical next door neighbours so much as ‘groovy’, hyped up caricatures of the beast. At least they were no longer confirmed to stormy castles and melodramatic “Good evening!” marble stairway entrées.

It wasn’t until the 80’s and the release of The Lost Boys that we not only got a heavily updated and modern take on the vampire, but a great story and dynamic casting to match for what is now considered a cult classic.

Diane Wiest plays a recently divorced single mother who hauls her two boys, comic book aficionado Sam (Corey Haim) and the older laconic Michael (Jason Patric), from cozy urban Phoenix to the boardwalk seaside community to Santa Carla California to live with her geriatric, hippy taxidermist father (Barnard Hughes).

Cruising the amusement park one evening Michael is awestruck by a beautiful young girl who just goes by the name ‘Star’ (Jami Gertz), but his attempt to get friendlier is interrupted by a quartet of motorcycle hooligans. Their leader (Kiefer Sutherland) entices Michael to join and play along with their daring wild rides. Eventually settling into their cliffside cave abode, a remnant fissure from a long forgotten earthquake, Michael is tricked into drinking blood. This begins a cat-and-mouse game of Michael trying to deal with and concealing his slow transformation into a fully fledged neck bitter from mom while enlisting the help of Sam who in turn engages his new vampire savvy friends from the comic shop, the inimitable Frog brothers; Edgar and Alan [get it?] (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander).

This is a perfect showpiece of 80’s horror that delivers on the creepy elements while keeping a foot in the tamer, flashy aspects of high school comedies of the era, a blend of The Goonies and John Hughes films. It’s macho punks on motorcycles with long flowing hair wearing more earrings and stuffing more shoulder pads any of the girls. While the depiction is ephemeral 80’s, the harrowing score borrows from the past with a cover of The Doors’ People Are Strange, but is indelibly associated with the even chillier theme song Cry Little Sister.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the film is what turned out to be perfect casting from both veterans and newcomers alike. Sutherland had just come off Stand by Me and the two back-to-back films cemented him as the villainous archetype that serves him to this day.  The mousy Wiest and Edward Herrmann who plays her boss and romantic interest seem odd choices at first for a horror movie and yet they both took advantage of the opportunity and managed to fit their square blocks into round hole roles seamlessly. Grandpa Hughes not only steals every scene he’s in, but delivers the surprising memorable last line of the film. The film also marks the humble beginnings of the phenomenon that was thereafter known as “The Two Coreys”, Haim and Feldman becoming teen idols and starring in a string of films together. Sadly, that relationship would eventually succumb to drug fueled lifestyles and darker claims of sexual abuse in the industry that would ultimately claim Haim’s life. Ironically that tumultuous onscreen collaboration would end with Lost Boys: The Tribe, one of a number of sequels, but one in which Haim was so far gone that only a cameo in the end credits could be salvaged from what was already intended just to be a minor role.

Movie Reviews 454 – Hatari (1962)

October 16, 2020

The name John Wayne is practically synonymous with the Western film genre, The Duke as he was known, having starred in 75 oaters over his career, from his first credited starring role to his very last film. But even The Duke strayed from the tumbleweed trails on occasion, and playing a wildlife catcher in the deepest plains of East Africa in director Howard HawksHatari is easily the oddest of his portrayals.

The irregular choice of casting for the film is echoed by the onscreen content which presents a paradox of scenes that cater to one of two almost diametrically opposed mindsets presented by the plot, or whatever is supposed to one. While the character interactions are all in the realm of corny romantic comedy it is clear that the main attraction of the film was to present sensational  actual live footage of animal captures.

Shot on-site in the plains of the east Africa Serengeti adjoining Lake Tanganyika, the cast are a team of hired catchers who supply zoos worldwide with wild and oversized wildlife. Without getting into the ethics of having zoos with caged animals, this footage is nothing short of breathtaking. There is no CGI of course but no special effects or faked animals either in any way. These captures, caught up close, are rounded between jeeps and trucks with lassos and snares, often from someone sitting on a hood mounted seat inches away from running prey, corralled running full speed. While some of the footage may have been speeded up for drama and I have to assume that professional stand-ins were used for the more dangerous scenes, it is nonetheless exhilarating to experience and worth watching the film for this alone.

Throughout the film we witness, almost in documentary style, the live captures of a giraffe, zebra, gazelle, leopard, water buffalo, wildebeest and even that of five hundred monkeys for one particular ongoing comedy routine. Some of the non-capture sequences also have animals such as ostriches, a crocodile, and hyenas. But the bookends of the film are clearly the most exciting in which they try to capture very much live, rampaging rhinos. The fierceness is undeniable and thrilling.

When the dust settles between chases this group of hunters suddenly transform into the most improbable of band romantic eyed gals and guys that tarnish the realism of the animal sequences. A trio of young men, comic Red Buttons among them, vie for the heart of a barely of-age young woman while we are led to believe that a European photographer catapulted onto the scene has the hots for non other than the reticent Duke himself in what must be the most

dubious May-December romance in cinematic history. The battle of the sexes interludes do have a few fun bits though, so they are bearable to watch until we return to beastly action scenes in short measure.

I would be remiss in not mentioning that this screenplay was yet another from the multi-talented Leigh Brackett. A prolific writer for the movies going back to Film Noir classics, other John Wayne westerns and even Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (arguably the best in the series), she was also a renown Science Fiction writer who was equally if not even more active in that genre.

If nothing else, this is the film that gave us the Baby Elephant Walk song by Henry Mancini even before he was penning The Pink Panther theme.

 

Movie Reviews 450 – La Femme Nikita (1990)

September 18, 2020

Most North American audiences were first introduced to the Nikita story by the American adaptation, Point of No Return which is a pretty decent film in its own right. Other incarnations include two acclaimed television series, one from right here in Canada. But the original French film La Femme Nikita by director Luc Besson is, as is usually the case, far superior and well worth seeking out.

To those unfamiliar with the story, Nikita (Anne Parillaud) is a rebellious young woman who gets into serious trouble with the law but instead of merely being incarcerated for her crimes she is enlisted into a covert government organization and is trained to be a super agent with emphasis on killing skills. As a mock funeral has already been held, so as far as the world knows she is already dead, so her choices are to either agree to the recruitment or to be ‘disposed of’ for real. Not much of a choice really.

At first a captive in a semi office-prison facility under the watchful eye of her mentor and recruiter Bob (Tchéky Karyo) she shows great potential in all areas of her training such as hand-to-hand combat and firearms. But her rebellious spirit has not been abandoned completely much to the consternation of some of her instructors and the leader of the organization. She does find a friend in the grooming and etiquette teacher Amande (Jeanne Moreau) who transforms that ragged punk youth into an elegant beauty,  which can be her greatest weapon under some circumstances.

Invited to a ‘dinner date’ by Bob who has clearly fallen for her, she is led to believe that it will be nothing more than a private affair within the cafeteria until Bob surprisingly not only leads her out of the facility but escorts her to the fanciest posh restaurant in Paris. Only there she learns that romance was not the reason for this trip, and in fact she is about to start the first of many missions in her new career.

Now given the latitude to live by herself, her tumultuous clandestine operations become more complicated when she falls for Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade) a grocery store clerk. Accepting tickets for Venice as a gift from ‘uncle’ Bob results in yet more complications for a mission, one that goes terribly wrong and requiring calling in  Victor “The Cleaner” (Jean Reno). But the cleaner wants more than just to scrub the operation and the resulting melee will be unlike any mission she has been on before.

On the face of it, La Femme Nikita (also released in some instances simply as Nikita) is nearly non-stop John Woo style action that has dizzying mood shifts to go along with Nikita’s Jekyll/Hide transformations as she is called to duty. But it also offers tender moments setting up the Nikita/Bob/Marco love triangle to the point that you forget this is an action film at all, even if only for a few moments. When Jean Reno barges on screen, the very manner of his entrance is enough to signal that the film is now on an altogether different trajectory from a both bullet count and laughs perspective. I suspect that Victor “The Cleaner” was the inspiration for Harvey Keitel’s “Cleaner” character Mr. Wolf in Pulp Fiction, although they are dissimilar in many ways, indicative of how Quentin Tarantino adopts characters but makes them his own.

The film sidesteps any discussion regarding the ethics of a government agency that skirts it’s own laws and that enlists deadly mercenaries to deal with troublesome individuals, albeit seemingly deserving of their fates. Nikita’s issue with her involvement is purely from a point of view of freedom and having paid one’s dues. Even finding love in the complicated manner that she does, comes second to being free.

Unless you abhor some of the over the top action sequences, it’s hard for anyone not to love this film. And anyone who can enjoy a Jean Reno performance (if it were even possible not to) will have reason enough to watch this by his presence alone.

Movie Reviews 449 – The Legend (1993)

September 11, 2020

I had to navigate the filmography of the many Jet Li films with the word “Legend” in the title to figure out which of the many movie series’ The Legend fits into. Which is kind of fitting since Li himself is hard to peg in the pantheon of “Legendary” cinematic martial artists. Arguably, among the three heavyweights, Li never had the physical acumen of Bruce Lee, nor the comedic chops (see what I did there?) of Jackie Chan. But when it comes to actual acting skills and range, Li easily tops both among these predecessor wuxia warriors.

As in many martial arts films, the theme of supremacy over challenged opponents is front and centre but surprisingly Li not only shares the limelight but is in some ways outshone by women combatants which figure just as prominently here. While Li is undoubtedly the superior fighter throughout, it is his mother played by longtime martial arts mistress Josephine Siao that stands firmly next in line followed closely by her sometime nemesis in this film, Siu-wan (Sibelle Hu).

The plot intertwines two families, that of Fong Sai-yuk (Li) and that of Ting-ting Lui (Michelle Reis), the girl he falls in love with. Ting-ting’s dad, affectionately called “Tiger” Lui (Chen Sung-young), is something of a village bully who hopes to buy up all the land but at the same time wants to maintain a humble image to others. The Fong family is a particular irritant to him as Sai-yuk’s father is one of the few holdouts refusing to sell. When Lui offers up his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who can defeat his wife(!) Siu-wan, the prospective men are quickly disposed of until Sai-yuk hears of the challenge and starts fighting her in a battle where the first opponent to touch the ground fails. But when Ting-ting flees right in the midst of the fighting, she is secretly substituted for a servant and upon noticing this Sai-yuk purposely loses. This results in Sai-yuk’s hooded mother (Siao) fighting Siu-wan in the same aerial manner, the latter thinking it is his brother and developing a spirited kinship as she fights.

It gets a little convoluted but the two families end up pitted against a mean governor acting on the behalf of the emperor and who is trying to get his hands on a list of the members of a secretive Red Flower Brotherhood fighting for justice.

While this is very much a comedy there are many touching moments and not only between the two young lovers which are hardly the most prevalent. The two elder women end up forming a tight bond that ends in a tearful dying moment. Sai-yuk’s mother swoons to any and all poetry which is played both for laughs and more poignant and intimate scenes. There are some running gags, Lui always trying to remain humble being one, but at the same time the film is distressingly sombre and violent.

But this is a martial arts film and in that regard there are plenty of nifty action sequences, again some on the lighter side, some with deadly consequences. The opening sequence had me worried as it was not only disjointed but also has some appallingly cheap special effects but those that turned out to be nothing but a silly dream sequence and thus purposely created for that effect.

Alternately titled simply as Fong Sai-yuk, there are conflicting views on whether the wuxia character was a real person living sometime during the Qing dynasty or whether he was just a fictional character. There was even a Fong Sai-yuk television series at one point but I’m unable to ascertain if that was a spinoff from these movies or a take on ‘the legend’.

All in all another great Jet Li film and another to add to the list of movies such as Fearless and Unleashed where he is much more than simply a fine fighter. Looking forward to finding The Legend 2 (A.K.A The Legend of Fong Sai-yuk 2) sometime soon as it seems to be equally acclaimed.

Movie Reviews 448 – It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)

September 4, 2020

Movies that feature a true ‘all star’ cast are nothing new, but when it comes to unadulterated comedies, the pickings are pretty slim. Ironically one of the best is also one of the earliest, featuring a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood and television talent at the time. Not only does It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World have a legendary leading cast, but it has a script that is just as inspiring.

It all begins on a desolate desert highway with a speeding car weaving through the few vehicles and then plunging down an embankment and crashing among the rocks below. The vehicles stop and the occupants descend to find a dying old man (“The Schnoz” himself, Jimmy Durante) who tells them of a fortune, the spoils of robbery fifteen years prior, hidden below a “Big W” in a seaside park in a town called Santa Rosita some 200 miles away. Before the authorities arrive the man kicks the proverbial bucket (literally and figuratively) leaving the witnesses to question what they heard. Fearing that telling the cops will needlessly detain them for further questioning, they reluctantly agree to withhold the part of the money when questioned by detectives who soon arrive on the scene.

But no sooner are they back on the road that they start jockeying for the lead, evidently all having bought into the dying man’s tale. After a quick stop to discuss the matter in the hopes that an amicable agreement can be made regarding distribution of the money should they find it, the groups soon split up, opting for a ‘winner takes all’ approach. Thus begins a greed fueled, no holds barred, multi-state chase on land, air and unintentionally in a river.

The initial crazed group of participants are as varied as can be. Two young men, Benji (Buddy Hackett) and Ding (Mickey Rooney) heading out to Vegas for some fun. The Crumps, Melville (Sid Caesar) and Monica (Edie Adams) as a couple on their second honeymoon. Lennie (Jonathan Winters), a lone truck driver hauling furniture and finally Russel (Milton Berle) and Emeline (Dorothy Provine) Finch seeking some rest after his recent breakdown but inexplicably hauling his ever yapping, loudmouth mother-in-law (Ethel Merman).

Unbeknownst to this medley of money mad moochers is the fact that they have been under the constant watchful eye of the authorities under the guidance of the Captain T.G. Culpeper (Spencer Tracy) who was the detective on the case at the outset, and now looking for redemption. Adamant that the treasure remained hidden in his town of Santa Rosita all these years and now hoping to retire with the closure to the case as the final feather in his cap, his plans crumble before his very eyes as he faces one crisis after another.

They don’t make them like this anymore. While some slapstick certainly comes into play this comedy relies on insane characters at their worst, betraying one another, creating new allegiances as they cross paths and getting into the craziest of situations. To sweeten the pot the film has an ever growing list of other equally absurd characters joining them in swelling ranks for the mystical treasure. We get to enjoy gap toothed Terry-Thomas, Phil Silvers of Sgt. Bilko fame, Gilligan’s Island millionaire Jim Backus, and with a memorable dance scene that puts Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to shame, Dick Shawn as a hyperactive beatnik beach bum and his silent cohort dancer Barrie Chase.

If that weren’t enough there are brief cameos from a number of other legendary comic stars including Norman Fell, Columbo’s Peter Falk, Jerry Lewis, Carl Reiner, Jack Benny, Don Knotts, Buster Keaton (sadly in a ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ moment), to name just a few, and most fittingly The Three Stooges in one of their last appearances. There are plenty of other recognizable faces (and voices such as Selma Diamond’s if you listen carefully) and spotting them all is part of the fun.

There is no shortage of favorite scenes and this film replete with explosions, stunt driving, and more crashes than a demolition derby. All two hours and forty minutes (not including the audio intermission) is capped by one of the most jaw dropping finales where the entire cast are finally reunited at their target only to have one more surprise in store for them.

The poster artwork by famed MAD magazine artist Jack Davis is not an exaggeration of the frenzy in this film and fittingly MAD counter parodied with a pocket sized paperback edition appropriately titled It’s a World, World, World, World MAD.

Frustratingly, my MGM DVD menu teased special features on the reverse of the disc but it was a single sided DVD (legitimate!) and the box makes no mention of additional features. I suspect that there was a Special Edition variant release at the same time but MGM did not bother making different discs with the feature on it.

In these trying times when it seems like the world has indeed gone mad, it’s nice to know that there was a time when a “mad world” was just a playful notion. Thankfully, we can return to those times, at least for two hours and forty minutes. Not including intermission.

I never get tired of watching this one.

Movie Reviews 446 – Stalag 17 (1953)

August 21, 2020

Stalag 17 has always been one of my favourite WWII movies and a film that was on my DVD search list for a long time. As luck would have it, when I recently acquired an entire box full of free DVDs whose actual contents were a mystery, there it was at the very bottom. Score!

Now the first thing about the title is that it would sound awfully familiar to anyone who used to watch the old Hogan’s Heroes sitcom which took place in Stalag 13, “Stalag” being the German term for prisoner-of-war camps. While there are a few similarities including a doltish sergeant Schultz as a character, the similarities pretty much end there.

Another one of director Billy Wilder’s acclaimed films, this comedy drama sometimes gets short shrift only because he was such a prolific and successful director. And with a competing roster that includes Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot, Witness for the Prosecution , The Apartment, Ace in the Hole , and Sunset Boulevard, who can you blame?

William Holden, being no stranger to playing a POWs as he did in The Bridge on the River Kwai, won the Academy Award for Best Actor playing J.J. Sefton, one of the inmates in Stalag 17. Ostracized not only because he trades with the German guards for favours, but also because he runs a bunch of schemes such as mice races earning him cigarettes and dough from the other inmates.

Sefton’s troubles begin when two escapees are shot the minute they make their break, a sure sign that the Germans were tipped off and laying suspicions that Sefton may have been responsible. When two new prisoners arrive after blowing up a German ammunition train and one of them is soon summed by the Commandant, Colonel von Scherbach (marvelously played by renown director Otto Preminger), only those sharing Sefton’s barracks could have spilled the fact that the new prisoners were involved in the sabotage. Now convinced that Sefton is the stoolie the former mere antagonism by his fellow captives turns to violence with a vicious beating and the confiscation of his lucrative personal goods chest. Not only is Sefton now a complete pariah, but what bothers him most is that there is a traitor among his fellow cabin inmates who no longer has to fear suspicion given that a convenient, yet innocent, scapegoat has already been identified. Even once Sefton does figure out which of his mates is the turncoat he realizes that merely outing the enemy in their midst would only be a temporary setback for them. Sefton must use his conniving mind for his greatest scheme of all if he is to come out on top this time.

Wilder brilliantly lays out a hilarious comedy while not sacrificing a moment of drama with many characters playing equally in both dispositions. Among the comedic elements, front and center are Harry “Sugar Lips” Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) and Stanislas “Animal” Kuzawa (Robert Strauss) the former goading the latter who fantasizes romancing famed war pin-up Betty Grable. Other amusing characters include a prisoner unquestioning his wife’s highly questionable letters, while on the darker side we have a shell-shocked prisoner who no longer speaks and only finds solace playing his prized ocarina.

Fans of the original Mission Impossible series will take note of a young Peter Graves as the designated Security Officer, and future director Don Taylor among the POWs.

Watch this for the drama or watch it for the comedy, either way you will be entertained with a brilliant screenplay that straddles the dichotomy right down to the very last words.