12 mini-reviews for the short attention span, taken from dark corners of stevenl's video vault:
SCTV (1976-1984?, VHS off-air). Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Catherine O'Hara, John Candy, Tony Rosato. This tape contains early mid-SCTV before Moranis joined. Women say the darndest things, Butch Grant Show, Earl and Floyd SCTV news, Rockin' Mel Slurp's SCTV disco, Liberace's tax advice, Bob and Betty, Mayor Tommy Shanks, Ronko Weiner Skinner, Count Floyd, Dr. Tongue's 3-D House of Stewardesses, Pipeline, Paul Fistinyourface, Young Weasels, Undercover policewoman, Simple Touch Whitener, SCTV mailbag, Graft Cheese, Take the Money and Run, Natalie Ringnecker (a precurser to the Kids in the Hall Chicken Lady?), Taps Friendly No-Name Supermarket, Dining With LaRue (Johnny visits a French restaurant), Flaming Turkey, Big Giant Restaurant, Relaxing with Raoul, Endangered guns, Two Goofs Grocery Store, 7 warning signs of mental illness, Insights with Hugh Betcha, Socrates, Meet the Pawnbroker, Earthquake in Togo, Firing Squad: William F. Buckley vs. Meatloaf. These are very silly people who communicate the joy they must have been feeling when they put this together. Great stuff.
The Hound of the Baskervilles (The Return of Sherlock Holmes) / directed by Brian Mills (1988, VHS). Jeremy Brett, Edward Hardwicke, James Faulkner, Kristoffer Tabori. "This case possesses features that are entirely its own." One of the best of the Jeremy Brett series about the great detective. Director Mills appears to have had a limited output during his career, which is too bad as this piece is well crafted. It is grim, foggy, and the shots are beautifully composed. The landscape reminds me a little bit of the Ausable Chasm in Upstate New York. The whole color scheme is in a washed out earth tone that works with the feeling of the story. And speaking of the story, Holmes himself is absent during the middle third, which helps us concentrate more on the plot and less on a central character. And a great plot it is. The buttoned down stereotyped British politeness and rationality of the principal characters stands in sharp contrast to the paranormal superstition of the Baskerville curse and the substory of a murderous madman running loose in the moor. Conan Doyle's language is always a pleasure to hear, especially when delivered by this cast. It was also very nice to see an American portrayed in a BBC production in an admirable way rather than as an arrogant and ignorant jerk. The villain loses his way, both morally and physically, and pays the ulitmate price as the moor plays the part of judge, jury, and executioner. There are two parts I especially enjoyed in this one. First, an anthropologist/doctor looks at Holmes and says, "I covet your skull," adding, "Would you have any objection to my running my finger along your parietal fissure?" This gives Holmes a very rare outburst of laughter. Second, Holmes has been hiding out in a cave, and when Watson finds him, Holmes offers him "meager refreshment" which turns out to be a repulsive cold stew. "It's quite disgusting," says Watson, not touching it. Holmes: "Yes. Yes it is. It's better when it's hot." I guess you have to see Brett's delivery to have the full effect. I had to stop in the middle of this video for some reason, and when I came back it had somehow rewound to the beginning. And in the course of rewinding to where I left off, I noticed the sped up blinking of the actors and realized they were communicating something in Morse Code with their up-and-down eyelids. I dutifully recorded all this and found they were revealing the clue to the story. They were saying, "Joey did it." For those who are unfamiliar with the Jeremy Brett version of Sherlock Holmes, this would be an excellent place to start. As far as I am concerned, Brett's version of Holmes is definitive.
Pire Hara / directed by Mahvash Shaykh-Aleslami (2002, VHS off-air). This Iranian short film presents a lone fisherman who lives next to the Caspian Sea. We watch as he fishes, gets water from a well, washes his clothes, and shaves. There is no narration. Excitement plus!
Swimming With Sharks / directed by George Huang (1994, VHS). Kevin Spacey, Frank Whaley, Michelle Forbes, Benicio Del Toro. Yet another drama billed as a "comedy." Spacey plays the Boss from Hell, an executive in the movie industry who is an emotional, spiritual and even physical bully. "If you're not a rebel at the age of 20 you've got no heart," he says, "but if you haven't turned establishment by 30 you've got no brains." The story is too relentlessly brutal, mean-spirited and Darwinian to be considered funny, especially given the serious backstory of anger, fear and pain behind the major characters. Spacey's performance is so convincing, it makes me wonder exactly who and where he was drawing from to re-enact such traits. Great soundtrack, which also lends a more dramatic and less humorous tone to the story. I used the word "relentlessly," and the audience never really gets a chance to rest or feel any sense of relief from the nastiness and self-absorbed ambition of the principals. It is a difficult movie to take in at one unbroken sitting. The ending is European, and Spacey predicts it with the quote: "Everyone lies. Good guys lose. And love does not conquer all." He gives us a superb acting job, but I don't need to ever see this film again.
"Half-Wits Holiday" (Half-Wits Holiday & Other Nyuks) / directed by Jules White (1947, VHS). Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Curly Howard, Symona Boniface, Emil Sitka, Vernon Dent, Johnny Kascier. Very funny and very sad. First, the funny bits. Two professors debating nature vs. nuture make a bet that the pro-environment/anti-hereditary academic will be able to make "gentlemen" out of the Three Stooges within 60 days. This is basically a remake of their 1935 piece, "Hoi Polloi." The Stooges, when called "morons," proudly display their Amalgamated Association of Morons membership button and recite the Association's chant. In another classic Moe moment, he holds a book in an upside down position and attempts to read it, reciting nonsense words as only he could. The final scene, set at a hoit de la toit party, erupts into a big pie fight. This was the first appearance of Stooge regular supporting actor Emil Sitka. In terms of primal humor that makes me laugh out loud: 23 pies in the face, 10 head konks, 4 hits in the stomach using the drum sound effect, 2 each of face slaps, hair pulling, and swift kicks to the behind, and single instances of feet crushed, hand smashed, face kicked, hot cigar ashes dropped into mouth, falling on butt, hand chop to throat, jab to nose, nose bitten, face sprayed with champagne, falling on face, and a finger bitten. There are, incredibly enough, no eye pokes here, although the nose jab has the same sound effect and could easily be mistaken for an eye poke if casually observed. On the sad side, Curly looks awful and seems sluggish. You'll notice he is absent from the big pie fight. This was due to the fact he had a serious stroke on the set (May 6, 1946) before filming came to an end. Serious enough to end his career as a Stooge, making this short the swan song for the most beloved actor in the group. He was only 42. Curly did make a brief nonspeaking cameo appearance in one more Stooge short before his death at age 48, Jan. 18, 1952.
"The Dentist" (W.C. Fields, World's Funniest Man) / directed by Leslie Pearce (1932, VHS). W.C. Fields, Marjorie "Babe" Kane, Elise Cavanna, Bud Jamison. Basically three different skits cobbled into one short comedy. First we see Fields the cranky father and a visual gag with a block of ice. Second, we see Fields the unpleasant golfer. Third, Fields the misanthropic and incompetent ("Have you ever had this tooth pulled before?") dentist. In this last role he engages in some very risque and suggestive dialogue and choreography, enough so that I recall this being shown as an extra during a college film night in the 1970s for that very reason. Two supporting actors deserve mention. A very young Bud Jamison, a regular with the Three Stooges, shows up on the golf course. I didn't know until today he was dead by the time he was my age (let's just say, over 50 and call it good). The characters he played usually seemed so much older. One of Field's dental patients was played by Elise Cavanna, who had a pretty amazing career as a painter, dancer, and chef. Some good sight gags in this one.
The African Queen / directed by John Huston (1951, VHS). Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Theodore Bikel, Peter Bull. Set in German East Africa in Sept. 1914, right after the start of World War I. Charlie Allnut (Bogart) is the Canadian skipper of the 30-ft steamer, African Queen. He's uncouth, his stomach growls, he drinks gin like water, smokes cigars, he needs a shave and his grammar is poor. Rose Sayer (Hepburn) is an English spinster and fellow Methodist missionary with her brother (Morley). Circumstance sends Charlie and Rose down the river together first as refugees, then as partners on a mission to serve England as they seek to sink a German warship (I like the cadence of that: "seek to sink a German warship." Try it as a mantra). They occasionally get a little help from Divine Providence. Charlie is a natural guy, and a foil for Rose who says, "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put on this world to rise above." Yet the two travel into a more primal world that continues to separate them from the social roles they were expected to play and pares them down to their essence as the river flows on. He challenges her humanity and her Christian dogma and you can guess the result. As a love story, this is Bogart's best. Hey, the guy won an Oscar for this role! Sure, Rick in Casablanca was the perfect romantic lead, but most of us fellows can relate easier to the more realistic and less sophisticated Charlie. When we look in the mirror we want to see the former, but instead we have to accept we see the latter looking back at us on that pane of glass. This is a very rich movie, touching on a wide variety of human universals. Aside from the dated soundtrack (although animal noises are used to good effect) and the washed out color or lighting, this movie is about as close to perfect as they come. It has one of the all time great wedding scenes in all of movie history: "By the authority vested in me by Kaiser William II, I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution." Watch for a very young Theodore Bikel as a German officer in one of his first screen roles. If you are interested in a detailed behind the scenes making of this film, I would suggest Hepburn's book, "The Making of the African Queen, or, How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind" (A.A. Knopf, 1987). I have a copy if anyone out there wants to borrow it.
Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy / directed by Kelly Makin (1996, VHS). Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson, Paul Bellini, Selma Blair, Brendan Fraser (uncredited). The Kids give us a story about the underbelly of the pharmaceutical industry via the mood altering drug, Gleemonex. The genius of their humor is that what they portray isn't really that far from the truth, they merely highlight the surrealism that already exists in front of us but we don't see due to our sleepiness. This movie was panned by the critics and the Kids themselves apparently have a low opinion of it. Dave Foley, unfortunately, dropped out part way through the making of the picture due to apparent ego differences. But he still has a very funny presence in the tale. In spite of this, I really enjoy this film and don't understand why it didn't get a better reception. It is great to see the Kids show off their parade of characterizations in a high production value feature film. And it all fits together. Kevin McDonald was the right choice to play the main character, a scientist with an ethical struggle. McKinney must really despise corporate executives, as he plays them so well. Supposedly he based this one on Lorne Michaels. Scott Thompson's closeted Gay family man is brilliant, and makes me think of some certain politicians who have since become notorious. Bruce McCulloch still gets my vote as the most enigmatic and strangest of the Kids, and possibly the best actor of the bunch. His Cancer Boy character was quite controversial, and very funny-- in a sick way. Hang on past the credits for a last scene. Comedies generally have a short shelf life, but this one is quite rewatchable and deserves to be rediscovered a decade later. In many ways, it was ahead of its time and is funnier than it was in 1996.
The Curly Shuffle / produced by T.C. Furlong, Barney Schwartz and Mike Rasfeld (1983, VHS off-air). Jump 'N The Saddle Band, Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Curly Howard, Shemp Howard. A music video dedicated to the Superstooge, Curly Howard. A true labor of love for and by dedicated fans. The editors made a very effective choice of clips.
"Waldorf Salad" (Fawlty Towers) / directed by Bob Spiers (1979, VHS). John Cleese, Prunella Scales, Connie Booth, Andrew Sachs, Bruce Boa, Brian Hall, Ballard Berkeley. A poke at the British inclination to be ever-so-polite, even in the face of incredibly poor customer service. Basil Fawlty thrives in this kind of world. Who is going to complain about this guy in this kind of setting? An American, that's who. Bruce Boa plays the stereotypical pushy, direct, ethno-centric American tourist who we at first dislike but start to respect as he challenges Basil's elaborate network of lies and excuses with pure and simple responses like, "What a bunch of crap!" Inn fact (get it?), Basil's shortcomings make him more American than his countrymen. He is himself loud, pushy, self-absorbed and a bit sardonic. So in this episode he has met his match. Very nice direction in the opening dinner scene with so many substories taking place. My favorite line: The American has just said to Basil that he going to "bust his ass" if he moves. "Everything's bottoms, isn't it?" says Basil. The service at Fawlty Towers was recently brought to life the night before I watched this video when I was treated to the escapades of a Basil-type waitress who at first made me ticked off, then sociologically amused as I dined at a local place I won't mention but has the initials of the Olive Garden. Some people are born for customer service, others are not. Basil, and this waitress, are not. Watching this can be painful, and funny (both at Fawlty Towers or the Olive Garden). Take your choice.
Help! / directed by Richard Lester (1965, VHS off-air). John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron, Victor Spinetti, Roy Kinnear, John Bluthal, Patrick Cargill, Mal Evans (uncredited). An Eastern cult that practices human sacrifice must regain a special ring that has somehow become stuck on Ringo's finger. A spy/adventure spoof and the second film for the Fab Four as their empire continued to grow. As the tale unfolds, the Beatles perform several songs in a way that anticipates MTV and the gags make me think they must have influenced Monty Python to some degree. The delivery of the lines, however, is pure Beatles-- given in a whimsical deadpan. Ringo seems to be the only one who is able to go beyond being a singer and morph into an actor and still appear comfortable. The other three look like they are just walking through the set and want it over with. Still, there are enough funny bits to keep one engaged, and of course the music by the greatest rock band of all time. Some of the best visual jokes take place in the snow sequence.
Kids in the Hall. Season 1, episode 3 (1989, DVD). Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney, Scott Thompson. Gunslinger, Mountain gorilla, Hoodlums hassling businesman for life, Citizen Kane, Alley narrative, the first appearance of the old married couple Fran and Gordon (Scott and Bruce) in the salty ham sketch. This last bit of writing and acting made me feel like they took another step in sophistication and both of these characters remained interesting throughout the Kids' run.