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War Movies and the Oscars: It's always Hell

March 1, 2010 |  5:51 pm
Patton

If “The Hurt Locker” wins the Oscar for best picture Sunday night — and at this stage, the race is really down to either “Avatar” or the Kathryn Bigelow-directed film about bomb disposal experts in Iraq — it will be the first war film to earn the academy’s top honor in nearly 25 years. In the past 40 years, only three bona fide war films have won the top Oscar — 1970’s “Patton,”  1978’s “The Deer Hunter”  and 1986’s “Platoon.” 

But what intrigued me, after taking the time to watch the films again recently, was this: What do the movies tell us about our attitude toward war — and about ourselves as a country? And why did they win the Oscar, often against especially stiff competition? First off, and it’s a big first, they were all big hits. In terms of adjusted for inflation grosses, which is the best way to provide a modern-day perspective on their domestic numbers, “Patton” grossed $306 million, “Platoon” $282.9 million and “The Deer Hunter” $162.6 million. If “The Hurt Locker” wins best picture, it could be the lowest-grossing winner in recent memory, having only made $12.7 million in the U.S. so far.

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In other words, not only were audiences eager to see a complex portrayal of a World War II warrior at the height of the Vietnam War, but they were just as willing to embrace two very dark, disturbing portraits of the Vietnam quagmire in the years following the end of that war. Even though “The Hurt Locker” offers a taut, compelling portrait of life during wartime in Iraq, it has largely been ignored by American audiences, who’ve turned their backs on every cinematic effort to capture the drama of the Iraq conflict.

For me, the most fascinating thing about all the past Oscar winners is that they unerringly capture our modern-day ambivalence toward war. Although the film wasn’t released until 1970, “Patton” was written by Francis Coppola in 1965 at a time when he was broke and couldn’t get any of his personal projects made. The film’s producer was looking for a screenwriter with a military background. He must have struck out, since Coppola’s only military association was military school. As Coppola later admitted: “My only military background was playing tuba in a military academy band.” But Coppola (who shares script credit with Edmund North, who did some rewrites on the project) had a savvy take on Patton, imagining him as a medieval knight living in the wrong century.

In fact, Patton, who looks especially bigger than life in the hands of George C. Scott, was a classic American archetype: the brilliant tactician and motivator of men whose obsessive need to win eventually undermined nearly all of his impressive accomplishments. He’s the military equivalent of the great college coaches, be it Bobby Knight in basketball or Woody Hayes in football, who were often worshiped by their players but whose self-destructive flaws derailed their careers. (It’s hardly a coincidence that Knight, whose nickname was “The General,” first made his name as the basketball coach at Army.)

You could argue that “Patton,” which was directed by Franklin Schaffner, was a hit because its audiences saw the movie they wanted to see. Antiwar moviegoers could view Patton as a vain, egomaniacal blowhard who risked the lives of his men to achieve his own ends, while pro-war moviegoers could see Patton as an inspirational hero, unwilling to leave war to meddling bureaucrats. Perhaps he was both. Even though he lived for war (as he says in the film, “I love it, God help me, I do love it, I love it more than my life”), Patton’s contempt for authority probably earned him some respect from the counterculture crowd, a contempt that George C. Scott carried over to the Oscars. Refusing to accept his lead actor award, Scott dismissed the Academy Awards as a “two-hour meat parade” that was “barbarous and innately corrupt.”

It’s pretty obvious that 1970-era moviegoers, depressed by the dreary daily news accounts from Vietnam, were delighted to watch a movie about a simpler war, a war that could actually be won. “Patton” was Richard Nixon’s favorite movie — he watched it repeatedly, including the night before he authorized the controversial invasion of Cambodia. 

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There’s no evidence that Nixon ever watched “The Deer Hunter,” the bleak, troubling three-hour Michael Cimino-directed epic that won five Oscars, including best picture, which was handed out — in the irony of all ironies — by John Wayne. Like many of the war movies that followed it, in particular “Platoon” and “The Hurt Locker,” “The Deer Hunter” was a story about male camaraderie. The movie takes great pains to establish that its leading characters, played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage, are blue-collar pals from a small steel town in Pennsylvania. 

They go off to war seeing it as their patriotic duty, but when they return — if they return at all — they are shattered by the experience. Audiences flocked to see the film and most critics raved about what David Thomson calls “the overall notion of a blinded, battered American self-belief struggling to move forward.” It is telling that “The Deer Hunter” earned its best picture by defeating “Coming Home,” another critically lauded film about Vietnam. But whereas “Coming Home” was clearly an antiwar film, populated with antiwar activists like Jane Fonda and Jon Voight, “The Deer Hunter,” like “Patton,” offered a far more ambiguous view of the war.

The film’s terrifying Russian-roulette scenes, which played a big part in making the movie a cultural sensation, were a perfect symbol for the nihilism and bitter sense of futility that the country felt about the war. (They were also hugely controversial, since it’s unclear if the Vietnamese, who are portrayed in the film as wild-eyed sadists, ever used such a practice.) But the film also played into the country’s deep-seated patriotism, having its characters reunited at the end for a solemn rendition of “God Bless America.”

Platoon

Oliver Stone is far less sentimental about war in his “Platoon.” Made on a shoestring budget after the script was turned down by every studio in town, the film was a big winner at the Oscars in part because it had a great awards season hook: It was the first Vietnam movie made by someone who actually fought in the war himself. The movie is clearly autobiographical, with Charlie Sheen playing the young, vaguely idealistic
Stone, who served in the 25th Infantry Division, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart long before he started racking up Oscars.

The movie represents Stone’s own ambivalent attitude toward war — he admires the blue-collar infantry grunts for their grit and valor but goes out of his way to underline their wary skepticism toward the war itself. Most of the soldiers are just trying to survive — they look at Sheen, who like Stone himself is a volunteer, not a draftee, as a lunatic idealist. Early in the film, Sheen explains that he shed his college deferment and volunteered because “I figured, why should the poor kids go off to war and the rich kids get away with it?”

One of the African American soldiers, raising an eyebrow, says dryly, “What we got here is an idealist,” quickly adding, “You gotta be rich in the first place to think like that.” “Platoon” is full of similar class consciousness, but what makes it different from other Vietnam movies is that it focuses on the divisiveness of the conflict. No one in “Deer Hunter” questions the war — they’re simply maimed or destroyed by it. In “Platoon,” the most elemental conflict isn’t between the U.S. and the North Vietnamese, it’s between the soldiers themselves, who are just as conflicted about the conflict as their countrymen back home.

The film’s tension comes between the yin and yang of its two most charismatic actors — Willem Dafoe, who plays the maverick, quasi-pacifist hero, and Tom Berenger as a ruthless pragmatist  (a Patton-esque character unbound by any old Army restraints) who ends up killing his most feared adversary — not a member of the Viet Cong but a member of his own platoon. It is a film that oozes with disillusionment, but perhaps that’s what helped make it such a hit. In the mid-1980s, if “Top Gun” represented an appealing fantasy about the visceral excitement of war, it was “Platoon” that captured the caustic reality.

As David Halberstam, who’d made his name as a Vietnam correspondent and one of the war’s earliest critics, put it: “I find it inconceivable that someone who had not been to Vietnam could see this movie and not sense its authenticity and immediately understand why the war was unwinnable.”   

You could probably say much the same thing about “The Hurt Locker,” which captures both the individual acts of bravery as well as the overall futility of the war in Iraq. No matter how you look at it, in the world of Hollywood movies, war is hell, where every stirring act of heroism or grace under fire is undercut by a pervasive feeling of isolation, dehumanization and pessimism. Even “Patton,” set in the one war that was actually won, ends on a bleak note, with the grand warrior as a lonely old man, walking his dog.

In John Wayne’s day (even though he ducked out of the fighting himself), war movies served as an inspiration, both for the men in battle as well as the folks rooting them on back home. It was a simpler time, when it wasn’t so hard to separate good from evil, the right cause from the wrong one. But when today’s Hollywood takes a shot at capturing war on screen, the moral lines are less distinct. Audiences see, up close and personal, the unerring brutality of conflict. In every film, the mood is pretty much the same — even when it’s time to sing “God Bless America,” despite the prideful lyrics, it is a serenade full of sorrow. 

 Photo of George C. Scott in “Patton” from 20th Century Fox; Robert De Niro in “Deer Hunter” from MCA/ Universal; Charlie Sheen (left) and Keith David in “Platoon” from Orion Pictures

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Categories: MOVIES, NEWS STORY

Photos – Over 30 Star Wars Photos That Have Never Been Seen Before

Total Film has published a portfolio of 30 never-before-seen photos taken on the sets of the original Star Wars films. And when we say mind-blowing, we’re not forcin’ around: Watch your childhoods get raped (in the good way) as your cherished intergalactic heroes indulge in extremely earthly vices! Tremble in fear as you witness ungodly genetic mutations fusing droids with Darths! Scream in terror as a beloved co-pilot is reduced to a bathmat and some fetching accessories.

You’ve already seen Ciggie-3PO, above. Can you handle the rest? It’s all right this way…

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Kenny Baker, who played R2-D2 in all six of the films, wears the Darth Vader mask. This could have changed the course of Star Wars history considerably. (“Bee boop beep boo boo.” “No! No! That’s not true. That’s impossible!” “Beep boop beep.” “NO! NO!”)

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Categories: MOVIES, PHOTOS

'Hurt Locker' Controversy: Why is the Military Upset about the Movie?

February 26, 2010 Leave a comment

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I was shocked — and I mean shocked — to discover today that there are some members of the military who think that "The Hurt Locker" is "Hollywood hokum," as my colleagues put it in a smartly detailed front-page story in the Los Angeles Times.

According to our dispatch, some people in the military are impressed by the film, starting with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who called it "authentic" and "very compelling." And then there are a number of active soldiers and veterans who have scoffed at its portrayal of the Army's Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, with one EOD team leader saying the film has "too much John Wayne and cowboy stuff."

Why do some members of the military think the film stretches the truth a little? Well, the easy response is this: What Hollywood film doesn't stretch the truth? Movies are dramas, not documentaries, and drama is always full of heightened reality, which is a fancy way of saying that movies are always crammed with invented action used to build tension and conflict. It's why the first people to criticize a film's authenticity are usually the people who've actually done the job or known the real person portrayed in the film.

A host of previous films portraying the military, dating back to "Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July," "Apocalypse Now" and "The Deer Hunter, to name but a few, were all criticized in one way or another by former soldiers, who were the closest to the films' events and the most sensitive to seeing the grit of war softened or theatricalized by dramatic license. But the military is hardly alone.

Nearly every film about the civil rights movement was criticized by the people involved in the movement for inaccuracies, big and small. College basketball coaches hoot at the way coaches are portrayed in college basketball movies. Doctors roll their eyes at the way medicine is practiced in Hollywood medical dramas. And, of course, journalists are especially quick to take offense at the way their profession is portrayed in the movies, most recently in "State of Play," which took a drubbing for its fanciful portrayal of high-powered investigative reporting.

In case you've forgotten, "A Beautiful Mind" won an Oscar for best picture — despite the fact that it was roundly lambasted by people who knew math genius John Nash — for all sorts of imagined or invented scenes. And "The Hurricane," a biopic about the boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter was met with a hailstorm of invective by boxing writers and other journalists who were appalled by its historical evasions and factual inaccuracies.

So it's no surprise that the people closest to the events in "The Hurt Locker" are the ones most likely to be troubled by its sensationalization of real events. What seems to bother some people in the military the most isn't so much the film's gloomy view of the Iraq war, but rather the way its lead character is portrayed as a renegade and a loose cannon, not a quiet professional. But of course, that's the core nature of moviemaking. Hollywood filmmakers are drawn to non-conformists, not solid citizens. The free spirits and wild childs are the people we identify with and pay our money to see, not the people who play by the rules.

So I say let's not be so hard on "Hurt Locker." Its hero is an unbelievably brave, nerves-of-steel guy, but he's also simply the latest in the long line of mavericks who've populated our best movies. If I were Kathryn Bigelow, when a "Hurt Locker" critic says the movie is full of too much John Wayne stuff, I'd take it as a compliment. 

Photo: Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker." Photo credit: Summit Entertainment

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Categories: MOVIES, NEWS STORY

Trailer – 'How to Train Your Dragon' in HD

February 26, 2010 Leave a comment

The animation looks FANTASTIC. Seriously how much more realistic can it get. I like the story, dragons are like puppies, just scratch them behind the ear and they love you. Can’t wait to take the little ones, they will love it…

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Categories: MOVIES

Movie Review – 'The Wolfman'

February 12, 2010 Leave a comment

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The remake of The Wolfman isn’t so much a throwback to the classic horror icon as much as it turns the Universal movie monster into an action star.  For a movie that’s been sewn together from different directors, different cuts, and even different scores, The Wolfman manages to come out as a good film despite its scattered tone, limited characterization, and over-reliance on gore.  The Wolfman shouldn’t work as a movie but somehow it succeeds not only as a fun action flick, but as seductive eye candy with thoughtful subtext about sexual repression and an exploration of mercy killing as monstrous.

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The year is 1891 and Lawrence Talbot (Benecio Del Toro) has returned home to Blackmoor, England after the news that his brother was killed by either a beast or a madman.  Well, “killed” is a bit of an understatement.  Ben Talbot suffered an extreme case of flesh-ripped-off-skeleton.  Lawrence, feeling guilt over having abandoned his brother to a fate of living with their mad father (Anthony Hopkins), decides to stay and find what sent his brother’s skin and life away.  He also wants to comfort Ben’s fiancée Gwen (Emily Blunt) but in that sweet, sexually repressed Victorian England kind-of-way.

Working off a lead that Ben had been interacting with gypsies, Lawrence goes to investigate at their camp, but with it being a full moon, the creature comes along and decides to ruin everyone’s day.  This is where The Wolfman shows its true colors as an action movie.  There are no jump scares in Wolfman as much as excited anticipation about which villager is going to get the business next (hint: it’s the one who looks scared and confused and has no one else in the frame with him).  After a hearty time of ripping out people’s hearts, the beast attacks and bites Lawrence.  The gypsies manage to save his life, but we know that was probably not the wisest of ideas.

The Wolfman has breathless pacing that both helps and hinders the film.  Lawrence is attacked by the beast within the first 10-15 minutes and the film never slows down.  For an action film, that’s terrific, but for a film that’s decked out in gorgeously gothic sets and costumes with lush cinematography by Shelly Johnson, it feels like we’re missing out at times.  It’s obvious that there’s a lot of this film on the cutting room, especially when it comes to the characters.  Hopkins gets to be delightfully crazy and Hugo Weaving, as Inspector Abberline, gets to be a bad-ass anti-villain, but Lawrence and Gwen only come alive because Del Toro and Blunt know how to act, which is great because there’s nothing in this cut of the film that distinguishes their characters as real people.  None of the cuts wreck the narrative to the point where you fall through a plot whole too big to escape, but this isn’t a movie built around a slow burn of suspense and thoughtful character study.  It’s about the Wolfman tearing folks up.

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Even though it indulges in gore and violence, The Wolfman is an earnest movie.  It really does want to evoke the classic Universal monster and sometimes that comes off as cheesy, but that self-seriousness is crucial to the film’s success.  You’re asking audiences to buy into a man-wolf hybrid.  The special effects are incredible but the audience can’t treat the creature as real if the film doesn’t do it first.  Without that belief The Wolfman would be a cowardly parody trying to hide in irony and smart self-reference rather than trying to do right by the classic movie that came before.

But the earnest approach and simple story belies not only the beauty of the film’s world, but David Self and Andrew Kevin Walker’s intelligent script.  Not only have they reset the character back to Victorian England, they’ve seized on why that era is important to the character.  Not only is there the historical context of sexual repression, but there’s also the conflict between scientific hubris and man in his “natural state”.  Our main character is given over to the beast yet the advent of science dismisses such a literal transformation and this misunderstanding leads to…unpleasantness.  Science, the representation of order and reason, is in direct conflict with the savage and animalistic nature of man.  It’s a nice idea to pick up in between bouts of the Wolfman showing his hatred of other people’s internal organs.

I also liked the subtext about the nature of mercy killing and if that’s an act of human kindness or a savage act working under the pretense of nobility.  The film makes sure that Lawrence neither has the ability or the opportunity to kill himself, but he wants to die and we learn early in the film that silver bullets only work if they’re fired from someone who loves the beast.  It’s a twisted message that the only way to save someone who’s lost their humanity is to kill them.

The Wolfman doesn’t wade around in these ideas or anything deeper than a puddle of blood.  It’s a bite-sized Milky Way stuffed inside a filet mignon.  Both the action scenes and the setting work well, but it would have been nice to embrace the full drama and gothic horror of the setting rather than racing to the next slaughterfest.

Rating: B-

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Categories: MOVIES, REVIEWS

Early Buzz: ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ as Good as Kung Fu Panda?

January 19, 2010 Leave a comment

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I’m sure many of you are of the same mind as me that Dreamworks Animation pales in comparison to the daddy of animation studios, Pixar. What Pixar does so well in terms of character development, legitimately funny gags (without relying on tired slapstick) and an actual good story (whether animated or not), Dreamworks Animation seems unable to emulate (sometimes they appear to not even try), and instead we get a flurry of un-funny pop culture references (a la Shrek the Third).

The latest from Dreamworks Animation is the admittedly fun-looking How to Train Your Dragon, which features the voice acting talents of Jay Baruchel (Tropic Thunder), Gerard Butler (”that bloke from 300,” as Ricky Gervais said at the Golden Globes the other night :P ) and America Farrera (Ugly Betty), amongst others. Of course I my opinion that this film looks fun isn’t too popular, as many of you have said it looks like more of the same from Dreamworks.

 

Well, that may be what the promos suggest, but according to Harry Knowles over at AICN, the film is as good as Kung Fu Panda, the only truly great animated film Dreamworks has put out in YEARS. Although Harry saw an early version with unfinished/unofficial music and animation accompanying the moving images, he still said it was, “every bit as emotional, thrilling and fun as Kung Fu Panda.”

Harry also called it, “a fascinating coming of age adventure fantasy story that could be a bit intense for the most delicate of youngsters, but for most will be a joy to behold.” He praised the different types of dragons that can be found in the film, “each with their own particular eccentricities.” And he was particularly impressed by one of the supporting characters, a blacksmith and former dragon killer called Gobber, voiced by my fellow Scotsman and late night talk show host, Craig Ferguson.

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Overall Harry’s review of How To Train Your Dragon was pretty glowing in spite of his reservations before seeing it. The last word he has on it is that, “this is a wonderful fantasy that kids can enjoy, despite the fact that adults will have even more fun with it. In that respect, it did remind me of Kung Fu Panda.”

You can read the rest of Harry’s early review of How to Train Your Dragon HERE.

I can’t really say I’m marking my calendar in anticipation for this movie, but nonetheless I’ll see it when it comes out and by the sounds of it I’m going to have a good time. I love it when an animated movie is fun for the whole family, but still not lacking in laughs, good characters and a well thought out story. Hopefully that will actually turn out to be the case with this.

How to Train You Dragon hits theaters on March 26th, 2010.

Source: AICN

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Categories: MOVIES, NEWS STORY

Blu-ray Review – THE MEL BROOKS COLLECTION

January 13, 2010 Leave a comment

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Watching the Fox Mel Brooks Collection on Blu-ray, two things become readily apparent. One is that Mel Brooks loves movies. He doesn’t just like them, he loves them. Sure, you can hold his adaptation of the Ernst Lubitsch film To Be or Not to Be against him, but can you think of another filmmaker who would make a silent film ever, much less in the mid-70’s? His greatest films are movie-centric satires that show a great affection for old Hollywood and when he strays he tends to fall flat. The second part of the equation that is Mel Brooks is presented after the jump.

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And that second part of Mel Brooks is this: he started strong and lost his way. Something of a gag writer, when paired with Gene Wilder the two made their best works – on their own Brooks made films with a lot of gags, but none of the warmth or depth, and Wilder also seemed half there. There is a great sense of diminishing returns with Brooks, the comedian, but such is the case with many great artists, and usually comedians. Even Woody Allen isn’t as funny as he once was, and there’s a sense of being there and having done that. And Brooks definitely recycles gags towards the end.

The box set kicks off with The Twelve Chairs. The Producers was last owned by MGM, but was originally an Embassy release, which suggests that the rights could be with anyone, or the source material was too weak for the 1080 treatment. On the positives, the transfer of this film is excellent with the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in English 5.1 DTS-HD and original mono. Extras are limited to bonus trailers.

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The film is of the sort social comedy Mel Brooks never really mastered and only tried again once with Life Stinks. A group of Russians are trying to find the jewels of former aristocrats in the new Soviet Union. Ron Moody plays Ippolit Vorobyaninov, one of the former royals happy to chase after his past and past fortunes, while Frank Langella plays Ostap Bender, part of the new Russian order and the master manipulator of the two. They pair in search of the twelve chairs formerly held by Vorobyaninov’s family. Also on the hunt is Father Fyodor (Dom Deluise), who heard about the jewels during last rites. It’s a mad dash across Russia to find the jewels, and there’s a stop for Mel Brooks to show up as an ex-servant, and do some schtick as a the half-there idiot, one of his favorite characters to play.

Langella is charming enough as the con-man, but the film doesn’t have a great sense of build or that many great jokes. There’s a good bit where Moody’s character has to do a stage show, but much of the film plotzes. Brooks seemed to shrink from this sort of filmmaking, and it’s at once sad that he only tried to develop different muscles nearly thirty years later, while fair as he didn’t do so hot with this one. At least as a producer Brooks took chances, but as a director he only strayed twice.

But everything is that much more awesome with Blazing Saddles, and it’s one of the most perfect comedies ever made. Cleavon Little stars as Bart, the sheriff who comes to Rock Ridge to be Sheriff, but the townsfolk are worried about having the first African-American Sherrif, on top of being racists. But Bart is actually good at his job, and gets to be friends with The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), and pisses off Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) and his crew of evil co-horts.

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Jesus, I can’t watch five minutes of this film without hitting the giggles, and I can’t watch five minutes and not just watch the rest. Blazing Saddles is one of the funniest movies ever made. It’s a transgressive comedy, and that works to the benefit of the film because it feels a little more dangerous and edgy than anything else Brooks attempted. It’s also one of his rare films to have a number of different comic voices, from Brooks to Andrew Bergman to Richard Pryor to Gene Wilder. And that really makes the film work on repeat viewings. Even though it’s a shotgun comedy (in that the jokes run from the subtle to the over the top) it all works within the context better than the rash of parody films that have since followed, and plays more like a Looney Tunes cartoon than – say – Airplane! Everyone is on their game here, from Harvey Korman to Slim Pickens to Wilder and Little.

Well worn territory for sure, as is the Blu-ray which is one of the earlier Blu-ray releases. The film is presented widescreen (2.35:1) and in 5.1 True-HD. The transfer is excellent, and I could watch this film once a week. The film comes with a commentary by Mel Brooks from the DVD, along with all the other supplements. There’s the making of “Back in the Saddle” (28 min.) with Brooks, Andrew Bergman, Korman and Wilder among others. Then there’s the Blazing Saddles TV show “Black Bart” (24 min.) starring Louis Gossett Jr., Gerrit Graham and Mare Winningham, and then an “Intimate Portrait” Madeline Kahn” (4 min.) excerpt with Brooks, Lily Tomlin and Dom Deluise. There’s deleted scenes (10 min.), which are partly the TV versions of some scenes, and the theatrical trailer.

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Also included is Young Frankenstein. My review of that film is here.

Next up is Silent Movie, and this is one of Mel Brooks’s best efforts, if not his most underrated. It stars Brooks as a director looking to relaunch his career with a silent movie, and is partnered with Dom Deluise and Marty Feldman. They go to some of the biggest stars in the world, including Burt Reynolds, Paul Newman, James Caan, Anne Bancroft and Marcel Marceau in an attempt to keep his studio from being purchased by Engulf and Devour (a cheap joke on the MGM and Paramount situations at the time).

It is a literal si
lent movie, and that takes some real steel balls for Mel to pull off, but the film is funny, genial, and it works well for his cohorts, who can mug aplenty. It is also a loving tribute to the artists like Chaplin and Keaton, who paved the way for Brooks as a filmmaker (though his roots are more radio). And there’s a lot of influences here, from Laurel and Hardy to The Three Stooges; it’s a loving thing, and the film manages to use its silence to its benefit. This was Brooks last truly brilliant film.

The film is presented widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1. What are you going to do? It looks great, and the soundtrack is robust, sure. “Silent Inspirations” (24 min.) is a making of with coments from Brooks, and Alan Spencer, and Dom Deluise, among others. There’s a trivia track, and trailers ofr this and other Brooks films.

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Quality goes down with High Anxiety. Here is where Brooks started to obviously run out of steam and ideas. What can be said of High Anxiety in its favor is that Brooks made a loving tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. Brooks stars as Richard H. Thorndyke (an obvious play on Roger O. Thornhill from North by Northwest), who comes to head up a insane asylum with secrets, serets likely contained by Harvye Korman’s Dr. Charles Montague and Chloris Leachman’s Nurse Diesel. It wouldn’t be a Hitchcock movie without an icy blond, so Madeline Kahn plays Victoria Brisbane, whose father is the key to the whole macguffin.

The film is best summed up by The Birds parody, where Brooks notices a gathering storm of birds who then poop on him. There’s no wit to that at all. Or the Psycho parody, where someone interrupts Brooks’s shower with a stabbing motion, but there’s no real joke to it. Brooks had developed what has come to be the worst instincts of the genre, and if the Friedberg/Seltzer movies had a paternal father, it would be this film. That said, Brooks has a couple moments here and there, and the pairing of Leachman and Korman is inspired, even if their S&M relationship is a bit on the nose. Brooks loved Hitchcock, but he feels toothless with his story and what he’s doing. There’s no there there.

The transfer is excellent however, and the film is presented widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS 5.1 HD and in original Mono. This disc comes with “Hitchcock and Mel: Spoofing the Master” (30 min.) on the director and the making the movie with Brooks and Leachman, and Dick Van Patten among others. There’s a “Am I Very Nervous Test?” and trivia track that run with the film, an isolated score and theatrical trailers for this and other Brooks films.

history_world_part_movie_image_mel_brooks_01.jpgMuch better is the looser History of the World Part I, which benefits from short form storytelling. There are two main stories, with some sketches as buffers, including some of Brooks’ most famous gags (fifteen commandments, The Spanish Inqusition musical number, Jews in Space). The majority of which is done in the age of Caesar, with Brooks playing a stand up philosopher, who gets a gig playing Caesar’s palace. He meets Josephus (Gregory Hines) and the two become quick friends after both piss off Caeser (Dom Deluise), but both are befriended, somewhat, by Empress Nympho (Madeline Kahn) who lives up to her name. Then theres the second half where Brooks plays both a piss boy named Jacques and King Louis XVI, who is a lecherous man only interested in sex. Jacques is made up like the king as they suspect there will be a French revolution, but Jacques just wants to help Mademoiselle Rimbaud (Pamela Stephenson), who is trying to get a pardon for her father.

I think History of the World Part I was the first time I ever saw a pot gag and realized what it was. They tried to hide it in the TV cut, but you couldn’t really. But my parents were progressive so as a kid I watched the Cheech and Chong movies (side note: what the fuck was wrong with my parents?) The film is very loose and though it’s very hit or miss, without having to hem to a structure of established movies, the gags are more hit than miss, and you get such a range of great supporting players, like those mentioned, Bea Arthur, and Harvey Korman, and some classy help from Orson Welles doing the narration, and Charlton Heston playing God (which is a great joke). The film is very endearing, and Brooks plays raunchy, which I think helps.

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The Blu-ray is beautiful with the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD and in original mono. Extras include a featurette on the musical number “Musical Mel: Inventing “The Inquistion,” (10 min.) “Making History: Mel Brooks on Creating The World” (11 min.) with Brooks and Stuart Cornfield among others, an isolated score track, and trailers for this and other Brooks films.

As for 1983’s To Be or Not to Be, remaking Ernst Lubitsch films is one of the surer ways to fail big, and Brooks falls flat of the original by a lot. Lubitsch was the greatest maker of sex comedies, but with 1942’s To Be or Not to Be he had a less nuanced departure. A film about Polish actors under Nazi rule, it was a middle-finger salute to Hilter & Co., an angry but hilarious raspberry meant to mock all that was going wrong in the world at that time. And if it lacked the classic Lubitsch touch, it was because his hand was in a fist. At the time it was considered bad taste, though retrospectively some have accused it of being soft – soft would be making the film long after the war was over, which is what Mel Brooks and friends did in 1983.

Directed by Alan Johnson, the film follows the Lubitsch original beat-for-beat but misses the music. Brooks stars with wife Anne Bancroft as the “world famous in Poland” Fredrick and Anna Bronski. Trouble in their paradise starts when Anna gets an admirer in Lt. Andre Sobinski (Tim Matheson), who goes to visit her during Fredrick’s attempt at Hamlet’s great soliloquy, making Fredrick more and more perturbed. War breaks out and Andre leaves the country, while the Bronskis and their troupe suffer under the Nazi oppression. When Professor Siletski (Jose Ferrer) meets Andre and his gang of fighter pilots, he tells them he’s going back to Poland and offers to get messages to their friends and families. All give him messages, while Andre asks him to say “to be or not to be” to Anna, whom the professor doesn’t know – which reveals him as a Nazi double agent. When the professor hits Poland hoping to meet Col. “Concentration Camp” Erhardt (Charles Durning), he attempts to seduce Anna, but Andre has also returned to Poland to stop Siletski, and so the Bronski troupe is enlisted to fool the Nazis and keep the resistance a secret.

The Brooks version of To Be or Not to Be feels like a family film due to its
pairing of Brooks and Bancroft. If seen as a family affair, it explains away some of the movie’s problems, like the fact that Bancroft is lusted over by every man she meets (something a little more believable when Carole Lombard inhabited the role) twenty years past her prime. That noted, the duo have great charm together, and there are laughs throughout, but of course there are – it’s the Lubitsch framework. But the director Alan Johnson shows no great skill (it’s all shot like television). In one great scene, Fredrick pretends to be Siletski and in a bit of actorly ego asks Col. Erhardt if he had seen Fredrick Bronski perform, to which Erhardt says he did and then adds “What he did to Shakespeare, we’re doing to Poland.” This is probably the best line from the original, and it plays here, but better if you don’t know where it came from.

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To Be or Not to Be on Blu-ray is widescreen (1.85:1) with both DTS-HD 5.1 and the original 2.0 stereo audio. Extras include a “Books and Bancroft: A Perfect Pair” (15 min.) which gets Brooks, Matheson, Deluise, and Teri Garr, among others, then there’s “How Serious can Mel Brooks get?” (3 min.), profiles of Mel Brooks (2 min.), Anne Bancroft (3 min.) and Charles Durning (2 min.), along with two trailers for this and bonus trailers for other Mel Brooks films, and an isolated score and trivia track.

And here is my review of Spaceballs.

Finally there is the sad case of Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Watching this again, I realized there’s not a lot of good jokes, and that it’s more an homage to the swashbucklers of yore. Alas, Cary Elwes’s Robin Hood, Amy Yasbeck’s maid Marion, Richard Lewis’s Prince John, and even Dave Chappelle’s Achoo are left with warmed over gags from a generation previous. The structure is also closely hewed to one film, and when the film steps out (having Chappelle do Malcolm X) it can gets some points. The other problem is that Elwes has a great look, but he’s not too far removed from Wesley here. Books could be funny, but he had nothing to work with here, and the few laughs are modest at best.

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The Blu-ray is gorgeous though, in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS 5.1 HD, along with the original Dolby surround. The film also comes with the laserdisc commentary from Brooks, who thinks this movie is hysterical. “Funny Men in Tights: Three generations of Comedy” (13 min.), which talks to the usual suspects about the movie, an HBO making of (26 min.), an isolated score and trivia track, and trailers for this and other Brooks films.

The set also comes with a glossy book about the films included, and Brooks and his career. It’s light reading, but it’s got some good quotes and pictures.

Posted via web from MovieDriver – Hollywood Teamster

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