Friday, November 23, 2012

The Producers (1968) - Directed by Mel Brooks

Note: This review of The Producers appears at Wonders in the Dark, as part of the Top 100 Comedies Countdown, placing at #21.

Mel Brooks became known as a spoof-artist (if spoofing can be considered art), but his first film is quite an original, and perhaps his funniest work because of it. Armed with an insane premise, a wacky set of characters and some great talent, Brooks made perhaps his best film, or at least very close to it. I must say that I had seen this film before about 10 years ago, but upon viewing it for the second time recently I found it even funnier. In fact, as far as belly laughs go, this film ranks right up there with the greatest comedies of them all. It's a non-stop, heaping dose of insanity. It also contains the first real extended performance (not counting Bonnie and Clyde) from Gene Wilder who would become a comedic icon and one of the essential comedians of his era.

The Producers stars Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock, a conniving Broadway producer, who woos a small armada of little old ladies in order to drum up cash to fund his productions. When Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), shows up at Max’s office to check the books, he finds out that Max has been doing some “creative accounting”. In order to avoid legal trouble, Max decides to bribe Leo into a scheme which will make both of them rich. They will produce the worst play that they can possibly come up with (which they believe will close within the first few days of opening) and they will fund their play with money from the “little old ladies”. The play they choose, is a tribute to Hitler and Nazi Germany, called “Springtime for Hitler”, written by a former Nazi named Franz Liebkind (Kenneth Mars), who is whacked out of his gourd and living in NYC in a highrise apartment where he talks to his pigeons on the roof. They presume that the play will crash and that they will abscond with the money and fly to Rio. That is of course assuming that the play fails (Dun Dun Dun!!!).

The first 15-20 minutes of the film in Max’s office are downright hilarious and I find that I cannot stop laughing. Leo shows up while Max is “making love” to one of the old women. Max’s pleas to Bloom once he finds out what Max has been doing is hilarious……as Max yells “HELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLP!!!” right in Bloom’s ear! Another running gag surfaces in the early part of the film when Bloom takes out his little blue security blanket and Max takes it from him. Of course Bloom throws a tantrum and Wilder’s antics are just hilarious. Another section of this sequence is when Bloom's hysterics get out of control. One of my favorite lines comes from this part of the film when Max throws some water at Bloom and slaps him.

Bloom- “I'm wet! I'm wet! I'm hysterical
and I'm wet!....... I'm in pain! And I'm wet! And I'm still hysterical!”

In fact, what's better than to just watch that scene. It makes me laugh everytime I see it. 

There are so many funny moments in this film though: the scene when Max and Bloom go to visit Franz Liebkind for the first time and he’s on the roof of an apartment complex wearing a Nazi helmet and talking with his pigeons; the scene where Max and Bloom go to find the worst director they can think of and it’s a cross dressing man named Roger de Bris (a hilarious Christopher Hewitt); of course the piece-de-resistance- the actual “Springtime for Hitler” musical number, which is totally outrageous and wildly inappropriate, but great comedy. This spectacular number is so insane because it's such a wonderfully awful song and dance presentation that is presented with such gusto! We are shocked as much as we are laughing. There's something about this sequence that even today is crude and I think it's to Brooks's credit that he was able to execute a scene with such poor taste that it has stood the test of time.....and still feels like poor taste (at least to my eyes). 

When the film was released, it was only 23 years after the war ended. The use of Jewish characters and the lampooning of Nazi Germany was a regular occurence in the early 1940's......The Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch all used comedy to highlight Nazi persecution and voice their displeasure through enlightened laughter. But there are relatively no comedies involving Nazis or Hitler from 1942 through the next couple decades. It can probably be assumed that once the full extent of the Holocaust came to light, there wasn't anyone who could have gotten away with a Nazi comedy at that time. Although there are bits of comedy thrown into Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963), it is probably the CBS TV show Hogan's Heroes, that can be credited with bringing back the ability to mock and poke fun at Nazis. This relatively benign show, which aired between 1965-1971, probably paved the way for Brooks' film by allowing the POW camp inmates to continually outwit their bumbling Nazi guards. Now The Producers is far more edgy than Hogan's Heroes was. Of course comedy has and always will have some degree of edginess to it. I'm not so sure Brooks was ever this edgy again (although the repeated use of the N-word in Blazing Saddles does come to mind). It's just really interesting to me that The Producers got made in the first place. Now I know comedy can get a bit more leniency when it comes to controversial subject matter....because it's comedy and of course comedy isn't so "serious" about things.  

What strikes me most about this film though, is Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel. They are so funny, and they have such terrific chemistry together that it’s hard not to be somewhat in awe of their rapport. Mostel constantly has this wild-eyed look on his face, like he has just struck gold. I think Wilder went on to have some more memorable roles, particularly in another Brooks masterpiece, Young Frankenstein (1974). But, his work here feels more improvised and completely unhinged. He constantly seems on the edge of either hysterics, tears, or laughter. Additionally, Mel Brooks’s brilliant script is loaded with plenty of propulsion and enough zingers for 2 or 3 movies put together. This one is a real gem and one of the downright funniest films ever made. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

To Be or Not to Be (1942) - Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Note: This review of To Be or Not to Be appears at Wonders in the Dark in The Top 100 Comedies Countdown, placing at #26.

If I had to name the one Ernst Lubitsch film that I simply cannot get enough of, it would be his absolutely hilarious To Be or Not To Be. Now he is probably more well known for several of his lighter musical comedies with Maurice Chevalier, or his work with Garbo, or more than likely his pre-code classic Trouble in Paradise. But I love To Be or Not To Be as it’s not only a magnificently paced comedy with great performances by two terrific leads, but it’s also a really interesting farce, lampooning Hitler and the Nazis right smack dab during the midst of WWII.

The film is really the last of it’s kind during this era. The Three Stooges were the first to lampoon Hitler in their short film You Nazty Spy, which premiered on January 19th, 1940. Charlie Chaplin followed this with his classic The Great Dictator, which opened on October 15th, 1940,  including the famous scene where Charlie as Adenoid Hynkel plays with the giant globe in his office. On March 6, 1942, Lubitsch’s film premiered to critics and audiences that did not appreciate it. It was the last Nazi spoof comedy of the WWII era that I can find reference to. I can certainly understand how those at the time might find it really difficult to laugh at such proceedings involving Hitler and the Nazis. Such subject matter has always come under fire, especially when involving comedic treatment. Everything from Hogan’s Heroes, The Producers, Life is Beautiful……even Tarantino’s recent Inglorious Basterds which was a tounge-in-cheek look at Jewish revenge and revisionist WWII history. It’s not hard to believe that such subject matter will always be controversial. Oh but what funny controversy is THIS film!

Lubitsch’s masterpiece, written with glorious panache by Edwin Justice Mayer from an original story by Melchior Lengyel, is that terrific combination of script and actors. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard star as Joseph and Maria Tura, husband and wife actors who belong to the same acting troupe in Warsaw, Poland. They are rehearsing for a spoof play, satirizing Hitler and the Nazis during the day, and also performing Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the evenings. Maria begins to see a young fighter pilot named Lieutenant Sobinksi, who is a fan of hers who comes to see the play every night. She tells him to visit her dressing room as soon as her husband Joseph starts into his “To be or not to be…” soliloquy. They have a terrific exchange:

Sobinksi “Goodbye….I hope you’ll forgive me if I acted a little clumsy, but this is the first time I’ve ever met an actress.”
Maria- “Lieutenant…. This is the first time I’ve ever met a man who could drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes.”

Their affair quickly comes to a close when Germany declares war on Poland and Sobinski joins the Polish RAF in England. While there, he meets a suspicious Professor Siletsky, who has obtained names of key Polish underground members and who is headed to Warsaw to meet with Gestapo. Sobinski warns his superiors of the plot and they send him back to Warsaw to stop Siletsky before he gets to the Gestapo with the names of the underground members. Sobinsky ends up needing to utilize both Joseph, Maria and the rest of the acting troupe in order to murder Siletsky, thwart the bumbling Nazis, and even portray the Fuhrer himself through a hilarious sequence of setpieces.

This is one of those films that once it gets rolling it just does not stop. There are so many wonderful scenes in this film that it’s hard to pick just a few to talk about and I want to make sure to highlight key exchanges of dialogue and a few great lines, because that's really one of the great joys of the film. There’s the scene when Jack Benny as Joseph has arrived back to his apartment to find his wife’s lover lying in his bed. He wakes him up and begins questioning him when his wife Maria comes in. There is a rapid fire sequence of dialogue between the three actors that is simply sensational and all the more funny because Jack Benny’s character is completely clueless to what is going on.

Tura- “Wait a minute….I’ll decide with whom my wife is going to have dinner with and whom she’s gonna kill!”

Maria- “Don’t you realize Poland’s at stake!?”

Sobinksky- “Have you no Patiotism!?”

Tura- “Now listen you.... First you walk out on my soliloquy and then you walk into my slippers. And now you question my patriotism. I’m a good Pole. I love my country and I love my slippers.”

Then there’s the scene where Joseph Tura must pretend to be Colonel Ehrhardt and meet with Professor Siletsky. Professor Siletsky meets him at his office (actually the theatre), in his uniform (actually his costume) and says,

Tura- “I can’t tell you how delighted we are to have you here.

Siletsky- “May I say, my dear Colonel, that it’s good to breathe the air of the Gestapo again. You know, you’re quite famous in London, Colonel. They call you Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.

Tura- “Hahaha. Yes, yes…..WE do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping.”

This scene ends with Sobinsky murdering Siletsky, which means that Tura must pretend to play Siletsky, as he has left key documents back at his hotel room, which is also where his wife was being wooed by the real Siletsky! When Tura returns to the hotel as Siletsky he meets with his wife Maria. He tells her he (as Siletsky) has to go meet the REAL Colonel Ehrhardt in the Gestapo office.  He has a great line when he says, “If I don’t come back….I forgive you for what happened between you and Sobinsky. But if I come back…it’s a different matter”.

Then there’s the fantastic scene where Tura is thrown by the Gestapo into the room with the dead Siletsky and in order to avoid being found out as a fake, shaves off Siletsky’s beard and puts a false one on his face. This scene has a great lead in and Sig Ruman as Colonel Ehrhardt (Shulz!) has that terrific German accent and those great, big, bulging eyes when he pulls off the fake beard. Perhaps though, the most perfectly timed comedic moment comes as the acting troupe has dressed up as Nazis, including one dressed as Hitler so they can escape from Poland. Ehrhardt is up in Maria’s apartment accosting her as a spy and then pleading for her love when the actor as Hitler comes barging in, arriving as her "lover"…..suddenly seeing Ehrhardt he backs away out the door. She then chases after “Hitler” yelling “My Fuhrer!... My Fuhrer!”

All of the comedy in the film is terrifically hammy and farcical. Jack Benny is wonderful as Joseph Tura, a hack actor who must rise above himself to play the greatest roles of his life. His comic timing is spot-on, and he also plays the role wonderfully tounge-in-cheek. I’m not so sure he ever completely disappears into the role, but that’s part of what makes it so fun. Carole Lombard appeared here in her final film before she died tragically in a plane crash. This film highlights why she was one of the greatest, if not THE greatest comedic actress of her era. Her timing and subtlety is fantastic…. the way she makes remarks as if no one is hearing her. She somehow has a way of delivering her lines so underhandedly that you almost don’t even realize she has just told a joke. She also spends much of the film in a beautiful white gown that is simply breathtaking.

Ernst Lubitsch, a German-born Jew who left Germany in the 1920’s for Hollywood, certainly earned the right to make this film his way. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that his film was perhaps both a plea for intervention (to the U.S., which was not yet at war with Germany) and a lament for his own country’s grand mistakes. Now the film doesn’t really make direct references to Jews or Jewish persecution, but it’s certainly implied. His famous touch, which earlier in his career utilized adult bedroom humor delicately and charmingly, was put to good use here as he skillfully handled the fine line of satire and farce regarding a socially and politically charged topic, without forcing the issue or making it seem preachy in the least. I think one of the true tests of a great comedy, is that no matter how many times you see a film, you laugh just as hard if not harder the next time you see it. This is one of those. It never tires and never gets stale and always makes me laugh. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Groundhog Day (1993) - Directed by Harold Ramis

Note: This review appears at Wonders in the Dark, as part of their Top 100 comedies countdown, placing at #28.

Groundhog Day was the summative collaboration between Harold Ramis and Bill Murray that spanned 6 films. Ramis wrote and or directed for several of Bill Murray’s best and most loved early outputs, from the gross-out classics Meatballs, Caddyshack, and Stripes, to slightly more "intelligent" fare like Ghostbusters, but it was with Groundhog Day that a certain key balance was found, eliminating most of the petty and stupid and swapping in the thoughtful, the existential, and the bittersweet. That’s not to say that this film isn’t funny, cause it’s absolutely hilarious. But it’s also something else…..a parable, a morality play, an examination of our humanity.

Unless you’ve lived in solitary confinement for the last twenty years, you already know this film well, and for some of you, you know it by heart. Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a TV news weatherman based out of Pittsburgh who is slated to cover the festivities of Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, in Punxsutawney, PA. He travels via news van with his new producer Rita (Andie McDowell), and his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). It does not take long for us to realize what a smug, and arrogant man is Phil Connors. From his constant putdowns of Rita and Larry, to his complaining about the trip, to his hitting on Rita, to his sarcastic coverage of the event itself, it is clear that he has alienated himself from others to the point of no-return. Always on the lookout for himself, his day is one big me-fest. After covering the event, the crew tries to return to Pittsburgh, but is halted by a blizzard (which of course Phil failed to predict), forcing Phil, Rita, and Larry to return to Punxsutawney for another night. Phil wakes up the next morning at the B&B where he’s staying and finds that it’s Groundhog Day, Feb. 2 all over again. This occurs the day after…..and the day after…..and again…..and again. Feb. 2, Feb. 2, Feb. 2……..

Phil Connors is stuck in some kind of pseudo timewarp and the entire scenario has an interesting set of rules that the film lays out for us. For one thing, people are in certain places at the same time each day, and the entire day repeats itself so that if Phil wants to do the same things and be at the same places, the day will be exactly the same each time. However, Phil also has the ability to do new things with each day and approach each day differently if he so chooses, meaning he can alter the course of each day, but cannot affect the time warp in which he is stuck. He can stay in bed all day if he likes; he can skip the Groundhog coverage if he so chooses; he can park himself in the diner and consume massive quantities of food. He can also carry memories from one day to the next, while everyone else starts over with no memory that the day is being repeated. This is partly what makes this film so funny. It’s the way that we see the differences from one day to the next, almost like seeing multiple takes of the same scene being done over and over again. Phil encounters several people at the beginning of each day…..the fat man at the top of the stairs at the B&B, Mrs. Lancaster the B&B proprietor in the dining area (“Do you ever have déjà vu Mrs. Lancaster?” “I don’t think so but I’ll check with the kitchen”), the homeless man on the street, Ned Ryerson- insurance salesman and former high school classmate on the sidewalk (“Watch out for that first step! It’s a doooooozy”). Each day Phil's interaction with them is slightly different as Phil’s consciousness of the repetition takes hold. It’s our understanding of what has happened before combined with what is happening “now” that is so funny.

When you get right down to it, Phil is essentially the only one in existence. He has a memory and a consciousness that each day is being relived. He can take memories and experiences from one day and apply them to the next. But no one else can. This is both why the film is so funny, but also why it can be pitifully sad. In one of the film’s best examinations of Phil’s state, we see a series of days strung together whereby Phil tries to court Rita by learning all of her likes and dislikes, trying to create the perfect day whereby he can go to bed with her. Try as he might, he is never quite able to do it as his attempts to play for self-gain constantly find him out. He’s not fully sympathetic for the whole film, but there comes a time when I begin to root for Phil and really like him and perhaps this has more to do with Murray than anything else. I honestly can’t think of another comedic actor who would have been able to make this role work so well. Murray goes through an amazing myriad of moods throughout the film, from arrogance, to bewilderment, to frustration, to embracing of the carefree, to romantic optimism, to hopeless suicidal despair, to a determination to make a difference in the lives of others and embrace each day as it comes. All of these changes occur through subtle changes in Murray’s tone and demeanor. It’s really a remarkable performance and is probably the genesis of Murray’s later career as a more existential comedic actor. I think there is a clear progression from Groundhog Day to his work in films like Rushmore, Lost in Translation, The Life Aquatic, and Broken Flowers, all of which are films born of a certain balance between the sarcastic, the deadpan, and the melancholy.

What separates Groundhog Day from similar works like Dickens' A Christmas Carol, or Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, is the fact that we have no idea who or what is controlling this exiled existence. It could be God, it could be the Devil, it simply could be fate itself that has dealt Phil this maniacal blow. We simply understand that Phil’s comeuppance is due. I think this element of not fully knowing who has caused this or why this is happening is central to the film’s success. There is a deep examination of emptiness and of nothingness, of depression and pointlessness and Godlessness. I think the film can tend to have a lightweight exterior, but I think it’s just beneath this where the real depth of this film lies. It is not until after Phil goes through the state of suicidal obsession, does he begin to come around, to try and find any semblance of purpose out of his predicament, to find a point to his existence. Also, for many interpreting this film along spiritual lines, there is really no talk of God, outside of Phil himself articulating that he is a god. Spirituality never comes up as a theme. This is a film about humans and their interactions with each other. In a sense, Phil has broken off from humanity and has been set on an island….alone… think about himself and his place and his emptiness and loneliness. His goal is to get back to the mainland and his journey back requires him to profoundly change his behavior and his outlook.

It is debatable, but one of the most interesting discussion points of this film is just exactly how long is Phil stuck in Feb. 2? It could be argued that in order to know the life story of everyone in the diner, and to memorize every Jeopardy answer for the episode that day, it would take some time. However to be able to go from complete novice on the piano, to being able to play piano at the blues concert he leads at the end of the film, it could be argued that he spends many, many years in the time warp. What gets him out of the timewarp is of course that he embraces each day and puts others first. This is after he has resigned himself to making the best of each day as it comes, and this is something that applies to humanity at its core. Call it lame if you want, but I think the film makes you take stock of yourself. Do you take each day as an opportunity to make a difference? Do you even care what happens today? These are the questions the film makes me think about. I’m laughing my way through the film, but the questions gnawing at my brain are there too. Yes it’s funny and goofy and silly at times, but there is so much to chew on, perhaps even more than a film like this deserves to have. When you try to boil it down like that, I think the film becomes perhaps preachy. It's best not to over-analyze it I think. The film is best experienced and watched multiple times and taken as you see it. I’ve been saying lately that there are great films that happen to be funny, and there are really funny films that happen to be great. This one just happens to be both.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Terminal Station (1953) - Directed by Vittorio De Sica

It would be really easy to dismiss De Sica’s and producer David O. Selznick’s famously troubled film as a complete and utter failure. It was butchered by Selznick and the studio from its original 89 minute version following audience previews, and without De Sica’s permission, cut and released at an unbelievably short 63 minutes. This cut was released to U.S. audiences and titled Indiscretion of an American Wife, which not only excised many of the smaller details that the Neorealist movement loved to explore, but it also gave the film a title that is just an awkward mouthful and really doesn’t do justice to the examined state of the two leads in the film.  It’s not just an indiscretion on display, it is a full-on passion play, examining a woman’s temptation to leave everything, her entire existence behind for the sake of her heart’s desire, and an examination of a man who realizes that his soul mate has already been claimed by another. The Selznick cut fared badly upon release. De Sica’s full cut, is another thing altogether. Originally titled Terminal Station (Stazione Termini), it is a quivering and overheated romantic melodrama combining the best elements of Hollywood and Neorealism, creating an achingly passionate film.

De Sica’s film had several writers involved in the script, but amazingly the film’s structure is very simple indeed. Mary (Jennifer Jones) is a married American woman who has traveled to Italy to visit her sister. She has traveled by herself and left her husband and 7 year-old daughter at home in the states. We meet her as she is prepping to catch a train at Rome’s Stazione Termini to leave for Milan and then on to Paris where she will return home by plane. She arrives at an apartment door, fails to knock and returns to the street, heads to the station, attempts to write a telegram and gives up. We quickly find out she has been involved in a passionate and all-consuming affair with a man named Giovanni (Montgomery Clift). She boards a train, but sees Giovanni on the platform and suddenly leaves the train, staying with him at the station while she plans on taking the next train to Paris which leaves in less than two hours. Thus the film then plays out in real time, with Mary and Giovanni dealing with decisions they’ve made over the last month. The suspense and melodrama ratchet up as Mary continually fights her own conscience as she struggles to reconcile and reason her way through any scenario in which would allow her to be able to be a responsible mother and wife and also maintain her passionate love for Giovanni. In her eyes, she must choose between one or the other.

 Mary’s heart wants her to stay in Rome with Giovanni and thus everything grinds to a halt as she gets off that first train and remains stuck in the train station with Giovanni. During the time in the station with him, she tries to make herself listen to her head. She reminds herself of her daughter as she helps out a pregnant woman with 3 kids as she takes her to the nurse’s office. She reminds herself of the promise she made to her husband to always be a family and be there for her daughter. She even uses the run-ins with her nephew Paul (Richard Beymer) in the station to keep herself pointed to her family. As long as Paul is there, he will make her listen to her head and not her heart. This film has some kinship with Lean’s Brief Encounter, especially as it deals with the female lead character and the struggles of her responsibility to her home life contrasted with the passionate needs of her heart. However, in Lean’s film, the relationship remains unconsummated. Here, it is rather clear that Mary and Giovanni have already had sex.

De Sica’s instincts, especially in the longer cut of the film to provide key atmospheric elements, like the surrounding peripheral characters, particularly the ill mother and the Paul character provide key psychological signposts for Mary. In addition, the scene where she attempts to write her lover a farewell telegram is particularly well-drawn, as she can’t even bring herself to quite put her feelings down on paper, as if admitting such a thing to the man behind the counter would acknowledge her mistakes too personally for her to be comfortable. I’ve been in Rome’s Stazione Termini, and it was somewhat comforting to learn that the place hasn’t really changed that much in my eyes in the last 60 years. Much of the terminal appears the same to me today and of course filming on location was an essential element of the Neorealist movement to begin with. De Sica’s focus on emotional purity and realism is extremely effective, especially as he pairs it with the soft-focus glamour shots more reminiscent of Hollywood films. It’s an interesting dichotomy but really works in a film of this stature with leads stars like Clift and Jones. Clift was in his prime at this point, playing sensitive characters with ease as well as characters slightly manipulative and needy like this Giovanni. His role is the less elemental of the two, as the point of view is mainly from Mary’s perspective, though. Jennifer Jones is fantastically believable as a woman who hasn’t felt sexual passion in many years (or perhaps ever), who found herself caught up in something she never imagined would go this far. Her expressive eyes and aching femininity were rarely on display more fully than in this film. De Sica’s camera loves her face, and there are a few close-ups here that really make one pine for the golden age of the Hollywood starlet. The black-and-white cinematography is indeed beautiful as the light plays off her face. I think Jones and Clift make a terrific couple in this film, making me believe that they are sexually compelled to one another, if also sometimes disconnected on an emotional level, as her head is often somewhere else. They are at unequal levels as far as potential consequences of the affair go. Most of the burden is in fact on Mary’s shoulders, with any fall-out affecting more lives in her case than in Giovanni’s.

The film’s fantastic centerpiece is the scene where Giovanni and Mary steal away into a dark and empty train car. This scene is the best and most intense sequence in the film. Their kiss and embrace is framed terrifically in shadow and light, outlining their figures. It is a scene of almost uncomfortable intimacy, as if we as the audience should not even be witnessing it. Their union is interrupted as the police find them and take them to the police commissioner who is about to press charges when he realizes he has an opportunity to play moral judge upon Mary and Giovanni. The commissioner gives her an out if she tells him she will get on the next train. It is at this moment, she is finally able to listen to her head and the film then proceeds onward toward its fateful and emotional conclusion.  Yes the film has a tendency toward floridity and protracted melodrama, but for my money, the emotional clarity and honest character examination is fantastically romantic and observant. It is one of cinema’s great, tragic romances.