12 mini-reviews for the short attention span, taken from the dark corners of stevenl's video vault:
"Mr. and Mrs. Brian Norris' Ford Popular" (Monty Python's Flying Circus ; v. 13, episode 28) / directed by Ian MacNaughton (1972, VHS). Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Lulu, Ringo Starr. Mr. and Mrs. Brian Norris' Ford Popular, Schoolboys' insurance scam, How To Do It, Pepperpots with adult child, Spontaneous human combustion, Farming Club presents The Life of Peter Ilytch Tschaikowsky, Trim-Jeans Theatre Presents, The wandering mouth, The Fish Slapping Dance, Sinking ship, BBC budget in trouble, Puss in Boots, Lulu and Ringo and the It's Man. Typical Python Dadaism that seemed wild and radical at the time but tame today. However, the Fish Slapping Dance with Palin and Cleese will always, just like Ernie Kovacs' Nairobi Trio, be universally funny for decades to come. To deconstruct it and figure why would ruin the fun.
"Parallel Universe" (Red Dwarf) / directed by Ed Bye (1988, VHS off-air). Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Norman Lovett, Suzanne Bertish, Angela Bruce, Hattie Hayridge, Matthew Devitt. A very unusual and watchable episode. First off, we have a chance to see Danny John-Jules as Cat not only sing and dance, but also act like a real cat when he encounters a Dog. Barrie and Charles are pretty bad as musical backup, but I applaud their willingness to play along and be good sports! The crew (except Cat) get to meet their female counterparts in a parallel universe. In fact, the female version of Holly (called Hilly here) later became a regular in the series. Although Red Dwarf superficially appears to be drenched in Guy Humor as a rule, this particular entry is easily the most feminist of the entire canon. Bertish and Bruce did a very good job in providing a gender mirror for Rimmer and Lister. I like this one.
"Emohawk: Polymorph II" (Red Dwarf) / directed by Andy DeEmmony (1993, VHS off-air). Chris Barrie, Craig Charles, Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellyn, Ainsley Harriott. An uneven entry with wild Silly Putty plot twists including: Lister getting married to a Gelf (a creature that looks like Sasquatch), the appearance of Duane Dibbley and Ace Rimmer (two fave characters of RD fans), a drone law enforcement space vehicle, and a trading negotiation that smacks of historical Euro colonialism. Arnold Rimmer gets a preview of what it will be like to be Ace. This episode will make no sense whatsoever to the uninitiated. The common problem of not being able to easily join the RD story at any point is a strength in building a hardcore cult following, but a weakness in gaining new viewers.
Continuavano a chiamarlo Trinità = Trinity is Still My Name / directed by E.B. Clucher [Enzo Barboni] (1971, VHS). Terence Hill, Bud Spencer, Harry Carey Jr. Another entry into the excellent Hill-Spencer spaghetti Western series. The plot, such as it is, really consists of very funny loosely linked comic vignettes-- several of them revolving around food or economic class cultural divisions. Among the more memorable bits: A visit to the parents place and a family dinner where manners are optional, a holdup of travelers where the robbers give the victims money and fix their broken wagon, a saloon card game with a slapping scene not to be missed, loutish behavior in a fancy pants French restaurant (apparently all ad-libbed by Hill and Spencer), and a mule whisperer. I was impressed by the fact this motion picture included lots of belching and farting a full three years before Mel Brooks honed those natural acts to comic perfection in Blazing Saddles. Until I saw this, I had no idea the Italians were so far ahead of the United States in this area of bodily function comedy. Two complaints. First, as usual with this series, the climatic fight was overly long and became tedious. Second, my copy was cheaply produced (Direct Source Special Products, Inc.) and the tape was obviously recycled. In addition to the constant high-pitched buzz, I could also hear the faint audio of the previously taped program. Maybe the DVD version is better.
"Rebirth" (American Gothic) / directed by James Frawley (1996, DVD). Gary Cole, Paige Turco, Jake Weber, Brenda Bakke, Sarah Paulson, Lucas Black, Danny Masterson. In this supernatural soap opera, the Satanic Sheriff Buck finally becomes aware he has an angelic nemesis in the form of Merlyn's spirit. The series is going up a notch by being more overt with Buck's oogly-boogly side (shape-shifting, making "things happen," appearing out of nowhere, etc.) and mixing it with the rural good old boy crooked law enforcement officer stereotype hassling the longhairs. This episode demonstrates, through Sarah Paulson, that being dead might not be a great career move. Visually well directed, but the soundtrack is uneven-- I wish they had been more consistent with sticking to the Stevie Ray Vaughan sound.
Breakfast at Tiffany's / directed by Blake Edwards (1961, VHS). Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Patricia Neal, Buddy Ebsen, Martin Balsam, John McGiver, Alan Reed, Mickey Rooney, Orangey, Mel Blanc (uncredited voice). "There was once a very lovely, very frightened girl. She lived alone except for a nameless cat." The star of this movie was the song thread, "Moon River," sung in a touching way by an actress who couldn't sing (it didn't matter, we love her anyway), and later to become Andy Williams' signature piece and covered by many others. The story is a watered down version of Capote's novel concerning a friendship between a call girl and a kept man, the action is pretty dull but the dialogue is sparkling. Between the script and the soundtrack this is a film you can almost listen to rather than watch. But you have to view it anyway in order to see both Hepburn and Peppard give the greatest performances of their careers. Even though I make that bold statement, I admit they really have no chemistry, yet that actually fits with Capote's story in a sad way. As the egocentric Holly Golightly, Hepburn appears to be representing the majority of Capote's personality, where Peppard's rendition of Paul "Fred" Varjak (the struggling writer) is Truman's grudging practical side. With Truman, everything was always about Capote. Mickey Rooney (who is incredibly still alive and working at the age of 147) in the role of Mr. Yunioshi was a big mistake. Peter Lorre, Dave Thomas, Peter Sellers, Mickey Rooney-- great actors I enjoy and respect-- all of them made the error of attempting to portray Asian characters and it. Just. Didn't. Work. It comes across as racist and cheap. There are several buttons to push for cat-lovers and librarians in this motion picture as well as a typical Blake Edwards "wild" party scene with Mancini audio that later became a staple in the Pink Panther movies. The mobster Sally Tomato character seems like a tribute to real-life Joe Bananas. A nice JFK-era period piece-- daring but still safe. "No matter where you go, you just wind up running into yourself" was the Capote way of anticipating the modern "Wherever you go, there you are."
Baby Be Good / directed by Dave Fleischer (1935, DVD). Mae Questel (uncredited voice). Betty gives a bratty little boy a morality fairy tale in an effort to get him to behave in this black and white cartoon. Pretty tame and visually unexciting for a Fleischer piece. Even the music seems uninspired.
Down From the Mountain / directed by Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker (2000, DVD). Fairfield Four, John Hartford, Alison Krauss and Union Station, The Cox Family, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, The Whites, Chris Thomas King, Colin Linden, Emmylou Harris, Mike Compton, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Holly Hunter, Tim Blake Nelson. Part documentary, part interviews, part live concert, this well-edited film presents the old-timey country music from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou performed by the original artists with a bit of backstage coverage. The performers are not Hollywood-pretty, they are much more interesting and real-life than that and the music reflects their experience. Two musicians in particular really caught my interest. First was Johnny Hartford. It was strange to see someone I originally became aware of when he was young appear on stage as an old man about to die from cancer (he died in 2001). He knew his time was short, which gave a special meaning to his renditions. As he was the MC for the live concert, there was ample opportunity to see how music sustained his spirit. Very inspirational. Someone made a great choice in casting when giving Hartford that role. He also calls himself "a frustrated librarian" (!) in an interview. Second, and more personal for me, was Dr. Ralph Stanley. The caption at the movie's start states: "Ralph Stanley came down from the mountains to Nashville ..." and this is followed by film of the road from the area of Clintwood, Virginia to Nashville. I've been on that very road myself, but going the other direction. The Clintwood region is the ancestral home of my surname, where they lived since the pioneer era. Mountain people. On Dad's side I'm a first generation West Coaster, so the whole Cumberland thing is almost like Europe to me. Anyway, my father always said our family was not very musical even though we seemed to be surrounded by gifted songsters all around. Instead, he claimed, we were the type of folks who led lives that helped provide the material for the songs: moonshining, shootouts, fighting, murder, gambling, drinking, leading lives of crime, escaping chain gangs, poisoned by jealous lovers, nutball fundamentalists, eccentric extremists, consorting with "sorry women," etc., etc. We were Hatfield allies in the Hatfield-McCoy war. But somehow, some members of our dangerous gene pool managed to marry into other families that were proper types and had musical talent. One of Dad's cousins (now dead) married Ralph Stanley, so I guess Stanley was a convoluted in-law for awhile. I was actually at Ralph's house many years ago. Stanley's sing-song accent is very hard for me to listen to without getting a lump in my throat and having my eyes well up, recalling a whole generation of my Virginia Mountain people who settled out here but now are gone. Oh, I digressed again. Sorry. This film is one of the better music documentaries out there.
The Full Monty / directed by Peter Cattaneo (1997, VHS). Robert Carlyle, Mark Addy, William Snape, Steve Huison, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Barber, Hugo Speer. "You have to speculate to accumulate." Equalized by unemployment, a half-dozen laid-off northern England industrial wage slaves decide that perhaps it is time to find an alternative method of earning an income-- i.e., becoming male strippers. And that means everything off-- the Full Monty-- a very big risk. Sort of makes you wonder about the origin of Monty Python's name, if you know what I mean. Anyway. With a great soundtrack and superb direction, this story is perhaps one of the best movies I've seen about being male in this modern world. It addresses our pride, compartmentalizing, rationalizing, desire for male comradeship, need of approval from women, fatherhood, being a provider, societal expectations, depression, and sense of body image. And all of it done without stupid guns, hitting, pole dancing scenes, chasing women or action music. This one is jam packed with beautiful and very human comic detail. The unemployment line scene where the boys practice their dance steps is one of my favorite moments buried in the narrative. A keeper with a message of hope, although salvation might not be in a form you expect. A great movie worth your time.
Gulliver's Travels / directed by Dave Fleischer (1939, VHS). Jessica Dragonette (voice), Lanny Ross (voice), Sam Parker (uncredited voice). An interesting subject choice in 1939, where Jonathan Swift's giant walks into a world filled with silly little people who go to war over nothing at all. This was the first feature-length color cartoon by a studio other than Disney, evoking Walt's alleged response, "We can do better than that with our second-string animators." I hate to say it since I usually prefer Fleischer to Mickey Mouse, but he might've been right. This work appears to bury many of the best trademarks of the Fleischer crew in their attempt to imitate Disney and appeal to a conventional audience. That old unpredictable zaniness and dangerous edge just isn't here. The "rotoscope" method of animated drawing, i.e. tracing an image over a live actor, was used for the "serious" characters like Gulliver and the romantic Prince/Princess couple. The silly characters, which consisted of basically everyone else, were drawn in traditional cartoon fashion-- a somewhat unsettling mixture of styles. This would've been much more interesting as an all rotoscope motion picture. A lame-o soundtrack which is unfortunate as this is part cartoon/part musical, but singer Lanny Ross (The Prince) was born in Seattle in 1906, so there's a local trivia bone to chew on while enduring the songs. My crappy low quality copy was the product of Silver Screen Video, a "fine, fine" company I have written about before when I reviewed another 1939 film, They Made Me a Criminal. This cartoon will be of interest to cartoon buffs and historians, but I doubt a general 21st century audience will be spellbound by it.
In the Bag / directed by John Foster, George Rufle (1932, DVD). A short black and white musical cartoon set in the Old West starring the human Tom and Jerry. A classic example of the style widely imitated by several underground cartoonists of the 1960s and 1970s with an equally trippy series of sight gags.
Utopia / directed by Léo Joannon (1951, DVD). Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Suzy Delair, Max Elloy, Adriano Rimoldi, Luigi Tosi. Also known as Atoll K, Laurel and Hardy's final feature film and only post-WWII movie is generally panned as a disaster even today. The duo had been off the screen for six years, and their shocking deteriorating condition took audiences aback. This was distributed by the appropriately named Exploitation Productions Incorporated. Filmed in France and very badly dubbed, conventional wisdom has this pegged as one of their worst efforts. But I don't agree. I'll grant you, I'm not a big fan of Stan and Ollie. I'm more of a Three Stooges man, but I recognize the genius of Laurel and Hardy. They had a warm and gentle humor and I find it interesting that the folks I know who consider themselves enthusiasists of their work are themselves warm and gentle people. In spite of all the many strikes against this motion picture, I was still impressed by this veteran duo's timing and chemistry. There were several comic stunts where Laurel took a fall and I wondered if he was going to be able to get back up. It made me a little on edge, asking "Is this guy going to croak before the film is finished?" That actually enhanced my viewing experience in a sick way (like I said, I'm a Three Stooges man, not warm and gentle). The political message of the boys claiming an uncharted island and forming a government followed by the inevitable consequences was actually brilliant. The fact that Laurel and Hardy can still click and connect with a non-fan like me through all the faults of this production is a real testimony to their talent.