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by Bill Gibron

22 Dec 2009

Before there was Judd Apatow, there was Mel Brooks. Before the Farrelly Brothers parlayed a love of gross out gags into multimillion dollar blockbusters, there was Mel Brooks. In fact, before the ‘80s gave birth to every Saturday Night Live spin-off imaginable, before scatology snuck into almost every punchline, before post-modern irony, self-effacing slapstick, or anything remotely sacrilegious or sanctimonious became the funny business norm, there was Mel Brooks. From his days as a writer for Sid Caesar on the hit ‘50s variety hour Your Show of Shows to his Best Screenplay Oscar for his brilliant 1968 film The Producers, he was a firebrand, the gold standard in humor matched only by a gangly group of Oxford/Cambridge kids from the UK.

Indeed, Mel Brooks is as important as Monty Python, proving with equally adept skill that no subject was off limits, no situation or social class was beyond satiric poking and prodding. It’s evident from the titles included in the new Blu-ray compilation, The Mel Brooks Collection, that he was willing to broach any and all subject with supreme comic timing and incredibly biting wit. While one sure classic is absent (why, oh why, wasn’t the amazing Producers included?) and one non-directorial turn is present (the unusual remake of the Jack Benny chestnut To Be or Not To Be), the rest of this set is pure Brooks - campy, crude, indebted to both the vaudeville and burlesque of his youth while catering to the far more sophisticated entertainment palette of a calming counterculture.

While it may not seem so at first, Brooks’ Producers’ follow-up, The Twelve Chairs, was an incendiary indictment of the Establishment. Based on a fabled Russian folktale, the story of a former nobleman (now bureaucrat) in a post-Revolution Soviet state, desperate to reclaim some of his family’s wealth, is a strident attack on government, religion, and the hypocrisies of same. When his dying mother confesses that her jewels were sewn into the upholstery of one of a dozen dining room chairs, Ippolit Matveevich Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) teams up with a local con man Ostap Bender (an impossibly young Frank Langella) to find them. Unfortunately, a villainous priest (Dom DeLuise) knows about the riches, and he too begins a quest for same.

Thus Brooks, flush with success and ready to try anything, wanders the Eastern European countryside inventing old school silent film physical shtick while ridiculing the mangled Marxism of Communist Russia. Moody is excellent as the displaced royal, moving from slow burn anger to fiery insanity over the course of his journey. DeLuise is also in complete and utter whack job mode, so mannered and extreme that you’ll wonder where all said deranged energy comes from. Langella acts as the buffer between the two, the quick thinking fulcrum on which this wild back and forth rides. While far more understated than most of Brooks’ future films, The Twelve Chairs still argues for the man’s anarchic style. Like Python placing their bizarro world ways into a Medieval, or ancient Holy Land setting, the newly crowned King of Crazy Comedy believed that anything could be twisted into entertainment.

So it came as a huge surprise when The Twelve Chairs bombed. Few responded to Brooks’ warped vision, and the despondent filmmaker was left licking his wounds. According to the commentary provided on the next title, it was the studio that approached him about working on a script for something called Tex X (many of these Blu-ray discs have such insightful bonus content). Andrew Bergman had come up with the idea of a racist Wild West town suddenly stuck with a black sheriff, but the suits felt it needed more pizzazz. Brooks and his buddies Norman Steinberg and Al Unger teamed up with then unknown stand-up genius Richard Pryor to turn Bergman’s lampoon into the biting social satire Blazing Saddles. The rest, they say, is rib-tickling history.

Pryor was supposed to play the character of Bart, the freed slave, convicted of a crime, who is used by an unscrupulous Attorney General, Hedley Lamar (Harvey Korman) to drive the citizens of Rock Ridge away from their homes (and their valuable land holdings). With the help of the goofy Governor (Brooks, in a boffo cameo) and his flunky Taggart (Slim Pickens), Bart (Cleavon Little) is put in power. Natural, the populace of the tiny backward town doesn’t take too kindly to such ethnic shenanigans. While they plot to get rid of Bart, Lamar sends in a hired goon named Mongo (Alex Karas) to get rid of the citizenry once and for all. In between, Bart befriends a drunken gunslinger known as The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder).

An immediate smash, Blazing Saddles was a pop culture lightning rod when it was released in 1974. Brooks sparked several debates, especially in a media still reeling from the recent Civil Rights movement. He use of the N-word, as well as other derogatory racial and gender stereotypes (including some fairly outrageous gay slurs) would come to mark the vast majority of his ‘70s output. While he would argue that he was merely asking the audience to confront their own obvious prejudices, it is also clear that his “anything for a joke” mentality was indifferent to the often offending nature of the comedy. Luckily, the movie’s overall mastery, including its slap in the face facets regarding bigotry, leave it one of the greatest laughfests of all time. Brooks would continue to battle the pro-PC thugs for the majority of his career.

Oddly enough, there were no such complaints when he delivered his second major smash in less than a year - Young Frankenstein. Gene Wilder had actually come up with the idea of spoofing old Universal horror films, and he had a script treatment prepared when Brooks was looking for his next project. With newfound cache thanks to Saddles, he could do anything he wanted - including a full blown black and white tribute to Mary Shelley’s modern Prometheus. Brooks’ commentary on this film provides enough of the background on both the production and the performances to solidify its legendary status. But what’s really amazing is the cast - from Wilder as the original Baron’s distant relative, to Madeline Kahn as his fiancé, the remarkable Marty Feldman as Igor, Terri Garr as sexy lab assistant Inga, and Peter Boyle as the Monster him/itself.

For years, many considered Frankenstein to be Brooks’ masterpiece, and with good reason. If resonates a kind of classicism that some of his latter, more slapdash efforts would fail to offer. It tells a real and recognizable story, unlike the more vignette oriented approach of his other spoofs. It offers memorable running gags (like Feldman’s finicky hunchback, or Cloris Leachman’s horse-startling servant, Frau Blücher) and wonderful one-liners. But most importantly, Frankenstein remains the ultimate homage, a film as reverent to the movies it is mocking as it is disrespectful to the clichés it is mimicking. By the end, when Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) has the villagers grabbing pitchforks and torches, we see though the silliness to appreciate they level of post-modern invention Brooks is aiming for.

It’s the same thing with his ode to old timey cinema, Silent Movie. Yes, only Mel Brooks could fashion something thoroughly cool and contemporary out of a genre that died in the late ‘20s. His big brainstorm? Star power. By taking the humongous box office appeal of then uber celebrities Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Paul Newman, and Liza Minelli, Brooks guaranteed full studio support and some potent commercial clout. The storyline was relatively simple - failed filmmaker Mel Funn (Brooks), fresh out of rehab and looking to jumpstart his career, gets the brainstorm to create a modern silent film. With the help of his associates (Feldman and DeLuise), he will court the major Hollywood talent to be in the picture. Meanwhile, big bad corporate thugs Engulf and Devour want to take over the studio, and use sexy vixen spy Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters) as a way of destroying Funn.

With its debt to old fashioned slapstick and the ever-engaging work of its cast, Silent Movie remains one of Brooks’ best, most memorable movies. It’s fun to wax nostalgic about the days when someone like Burt Reynolds was a respected Tinseltown titan, not a TMZ tabloid punchline. Brooks pulls out all the stops, recycling material from his TV days (the endless mugging of friend Caesar and co-star Feldman) as well as some novel invention on how the lack of dialogue can be used as a vehicle for humor. This is a movie that was way ahead of its time, taking the corporatization of Hollywood to task with the whole Engulf and Devour subplot. While some may see it as gimmicky and more mainstream than his other efforts, Silent Movie is still subversive. This time, however, it’s the artform itself that is under attack.

By now, Brooks was a certified genius. Critics adored him and fans lined up in droves to see his latest unhinged humoresque. It was an interesting time for the then 52 year old. He was determined to broaden his artistic endeavors to include more TV and theater (he had both successes - Get Smart, New Faces of 1952 - and failures - When Things Were Rotten, All American - in both). In 1980, he would start a production company, Brooksfilms, which would foster such masterworks as David Lynch’s Elephant Man and David Cronenberg’s The Fly to the big screen. Still, Brooks needed another sure thing, and he thought he had it with his latest concept - a spoof of Alfred Hitchcock films.

The result, High Anxiety, is still a contentious movie for many Brooks’ fans. Some see it as recycled and derivative, the artist finally showing that he had run out of originality. Others view it as his best work, a seamless amalgamation of his Borscht Belt buffoonery and the Master of Suspense’s cinematic flair. Hitchcock himself LOVED the idea (and the eventual film), even giving Brooks some notes about possible jokes and memorable moments to mock. As Dr. Richard Thorndyke, the filmmaker is in rare romantic lead mode, playing straight man to his excellent ensemble of Kahn, Korman, and Leachman. The story lifts bits and pieces from North by Northwest, Vertigo, and several other Hitchcock gems. But there is also the standard Brooks byproduct of general, genial juvenilia and toilet humor to content with.

As with the hilarious scene where Blazing Saddles’ cowboys “cut the cheese” around a campfire, we are treated to Dr. Thorndyke being deluged by a flock of birds - and their copious droppings. While investigating the disappearance of a famed psychiatrist, Brooks gives us B&D, S&M, fourth wall breaking in-jokes, and the always interesting mid-narrative song and dance. From Lili Von Shtupp’s Marlene Dietrich by way of John Ford turn, to the monster and his maker crooning “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, Mel’s movies were inundated with music. It was something he started way back when The Producers needed a bad taste showtune to shock the fictional theater audience, and Brooks devised the now hilarious standard “Springtime for Hitler”. “High Anxiety” was fashioned after the ‘70s incarnation of Frank Sinatra, and the filmmaker delivers it with all the brash bravado of the chairman himself. As a study in cinematic history, this is one of Brooks’ best. Some still prefer his earlier, more outrageous efforts.

The ‘80s heralded the beginning of the end for the comedian turned commodity’s mainstream dominance. While his sketch-like History of the World Part 1 was a massive hit, the rest of his output was scattered and often disregarded. Spaceballs (also part of this set), a meandering spoof of Star Wars, is still beloved to this day, but it’s the source references, and not Brooks’ belly laughs, that garner most of the wistful nostalgia. Life Stinks, his half-baked homeless comedy, was nothing to laugh at - literally, and the less said about the appalling Dracula: Dead and Loving It the better. No, it would be up to History and its non-Brooks other To Be or Not To Be to start off the decade with a bang, and for the most part, they succeeded. Many enjoyed the four part deconstruction of man on planet earth, from the Neanderthal nonsense of the beginning to the trip through Ancient Rome, the musical look at the Inquisition, and the fabulous French Revolution riffs.

To Be, on the other hand, was an unusual choice for the comic. Clearly he wanted to work with his incredibly talented second wife, Anne Bancroft, as well as take on some material that wasn’t so bound by bathroom humor and bodily functions. There are some ripping moments throughout as Brooks plays a member of a troupe of Polish actors, avoiding persecution by the invading Nazis. With the help of a young US pilot played by Tim Masterson, he and his wife devise a plan to escape. Since Brooks did not direct (he let collaborator and choreographer Alan Johnson take the reigns), he seems more at ease here. There’s not the need to be overly manic and mannered. Instead, this is a more mature Mel Brooks, something audiences had not really seen - not even in High Anxiety. Instead, it was a window into his range as an artist, as well acknowledgment that fans probably preferred the nuttier, gassier version of his onscreen persona.

This was especially true of Spaceballs, a post-millennial source of much geek love. While it’s a movie filled with obvious Star Wars quips and take-offs, there is still something quite magical about watching SCTV‘s Rick Moranis running around like Darth Vader’s 98-pound-weakling doppelganger. Other elements that work include John Candy as Barf - half man, half dog (he’s his own best friend) - and Joan Rivers as yenta-ish whiny C3PO clone. Of course, some of the material mined is beyond silly (our heroes owe money to…wait for it…Pizza the Hut) but there are some who swear by Brooks’s belittling of all things interstellar. One thing’s for sure - Spaceballs remains the filmmaker’s last likable effort. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (included as well), meant to spoof the recent Kevin Costner reimagining of the Sherwood Forest legend, was as limp as lampoons come. Luckily, the awfulness that was Brooks’ vampire tale helped keep said send-up from being the comedian’s sour swansong.

Since Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Brooks has found a new arena to conquer - Broadway. He turned The Producers into one of the Great White Way’s biggest smashes and bagged a bunch of Tonys in the process. He tried to do the same with Young Frankenstein, with less than successful results. Aside from his occasional appearance as part of DVD and Blu-ray supplements of his films, the writer/director has been relatively quite. He played a part in both a big screen adaptation of Get Smart, as well as a small screen animated version of Spaceballs. Neither was particularly memorable - and with good reason.

As with most comedy and its creators, Brooks’ domination of the genre was cyclical. One moment, you’re the king of cut-ups. The next, you’re as unfunny as a Congressional filibuster. Unlike many of his ilk, however, he managed to squeeze decades - not just years - out of his run behind the laugh riot rudder. For many, the movies made by Mel Brooks represent the pinnacle of American filmic funny business. Looking over the titles featured here, the current crew of crack-ups has a lot to live up to. A lot!

by Bill Gibron

20 Dec 2009

History is a fount for possible creative endeavors. Filled with myths and legends, heroes and villains, it’s the stuff of epics, the material for a million thought-provoking and heart-pounding adventures. So why then have the two high concept comedies surrounding the archiving of our past - Night at the Museum and the recently released Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian been so lame. Learning dates and facts in a community college course would be far more entertaining. 

Granted, both entries do use famous figures from both national and international folklore to sell some antiseptic physical comedy. It does offer Ben Stiller in one of his two carefully calculated career modes (paycheck cashing vs. comedic firebrand) and it does give an array of equally talented costars (Amy Adams, Hank Azaria, Bill Hader) a chance to sell their own souls for the sake of some commercial cred. But the true scoundrel here is no unscrupulous businessmen or blasé bureaucrat. It’s director Shawn Levy, a hack who never saw a possible wistful family film conceit (Big Fat Liar, the pathetic Pink Panther remake) that he couldn’t mangle with his mediocre sense of cinematic skill.

There is really no faulting the premise. Like the toy shop that comes alive when the “CLOSED” sign is secured for the day, or the pet shop that plots revenge on its merciless owners, everyone has at one time or another wiled away a childhood afternoon wondering if the exhibits at their local Science and Industry get up and walk around once the final tourist has left the gift shop. The Night at the Museum movies jerryrig this idea into something about an ancient Egyptian talisman, group reanimation, a bumbling inventor turned museum nightwatchmen, and lots of jokes about biological functions and common sense vs. stupidity.

The latest installment sees Stiller’s Larry Daley trading in his profitable gig as a TV infomercial pioneer and pitchman to help out some of his old friends at the Natural Museum. Seems they are headed for storage at the famed Washington locale, and our hero just can’t let that happen. When they do arrive at their new home, a new wrinkle enters into the narrative mix. Seems Kahmunrah (Azaria), evil brother of previous film good guy Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek), wants that fabled golden tablet so he can take over the world. It is up to Larry and new friends Emilia Earhart (Adams) and General Custer (Hader), along with old buddies Jedediah Smith (Owen Wilson), Octavius (Steve Coogan), and Former President Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) to save the day.


This is what children’s distraction has come to in 2009 - and make no mistake about it, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is clearly aimed at a demographic not quite capable of making cognitive decisions of any kind for themselves. In the genre of crass, flat, by-the-book comedies, this title takes a small, stale cake. It’s dull when it should be amazing, rote when it should find way to rewrite the type’s bubble-headed tendencies. Tossing everything at the audience to see what sticks, Levy (along with returning salary scavengers, screenwriters Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant) overstuffs his film, making it nearly impossible to enjoy any one element. When he’s not trying for more and more F/X falderal, he’s letting his actors mug with equal abandon.

There are several low points in this preposterously dopey exercise: the himbo halfwit Jonas Brothers as marble cherubs, harmonizing all their dialogue (Yeesh!); Azaria, doing an accent that sounds like the illegitimate love child of Boris Karloff and Michael Palin’s Pontius Pilate from Life of Brian; the smart-alecky Dead End ‘20s lingo tossed around like ripe cheese by Adam’s famed flygirl; the continued and inane squabbling between miniature misfits Jedediah and Octavius. Add in the occasional attempts at topical humor, the completely wasted efforts of sure things like Ricky Gervais, Christopher Guest, and Jonah Hill, and you’ve got an aesthetic car accident that even the most mindless lookie-loo wouldn’t slow down to experience.

Of course, no one involved in this film sees things in such a manner. The new Blu-ray release offers two commentary tracks (Levy alone, Lennon and Garant together) and both are fairly backslapping and self-serving. Enthusiasm runs high, as does endless production minutia. There are also numerous behind the scenes and interview featurettes which keep the EPK levels lamentable. Some are attempts at humor (caveman answering all questions with grunts, a collection of ‘famous last words’) while others take the standard making-of material and treat it as the last word of motion picture magic. Between deleted scenes and gag reels, looks at real life museums and the daily grind of “monkey wrangling”, the Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian package is informative if uneven. At least the near reference quality 1080p image and various Master Audio mixes are theatrical quality. Very little about the film itself, however, is.

And again, the fault must fall on the filmmaker’s shallow shoulders. Imagine what a talent like Spielberg or Burton could do with a concept like this. Visualize a Night at the Museum helmed by a visionary like Terry Gilliam or someone with certified post-modern panache like Zack Snyder and you understand the problem implicitly. Shawn Levy gives Tinseltown journeymen a bad name with his crude cinematic construction and even more unfettered lack of gifts. He’s a human personification of absolute luck, parlaying a career on the small screen into the eventual leap into theaters. Too bad it wasn’t off a high cliff.

Perhaps then we wouldn’t have to suffer through another atomic bomb as wholesome amusement like Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. As yet another in a long line of electronic babysitters, parents could probably do worse. Sadly, after taking in many of the current Hollywood samplings of same, it would be almost impossible to do much better. A film such as this should at least be likable. This second Night at the Museum takes history and, instead of treating it right, trashes it.

by Bill Gibron

16 Dec 2009

It is often called the ultimate expression of the Summer of Love, a gathering of nearly half a million like minded individuals, all with the single goal of sharing three days of peace and music. It’s also quoted as the yin to the much darker and depressing yang of The Rolling Stones free concert at Altamonte, a mere four month later. Somewhere in between the myth and the memory, the legend and the legitimate issues surrounding its production, Woodstock stands as a symbol, one ripe for constant reevaluation and reconsideration.

So when it was announced that Ang Lee, one of the best interpreters of American cultural nostalgia (his Ice Storm remains a definitive ‘70s statement), was tackling Eliot Tiber and Tom Monte’s book about the backstage dramatics that came with the “happening” on Yasgur’s Farm in 1969, it seemed like a perfect fit. Often, it takes an outside perspective to shed new light on something so ingrained in our own historic consciousness. Unfortunately, Taking Woodstock is a trial, not a revelation. It attempts too many things, avoiding the much bigger picture to get much of that August’s minutia down pat.

When we first meet Eliot Tiber (a decent Demetri Martin), he is trying to hold on to his parents Catskill’s “resort”. In truth, it’s nothing more than a failing motel with a bunch of hippies/actors living in the barn. As a semi-successful New York interior designer, Eliot has sunk all his income into the business. Instead of gratitude, however, his father (Henry Goodman) ignores him and his mother (Imelda Staunton) smothers him. Hoping to bring some necessary tourism to the area, Eliot prepares for his annual classical music symposium. But when he hears that a rumored rock concert has been kicked out of its local location, he volunteers his town. Soon, the small community of White Lake is overrun with businessmen, promoters, and hippies. You see, Max Yasgur has graciously decided to donate his property to the cause, and now the on-again, off-again Woodstock music festival is back on! 

If there is a single moment that is indicative of the few things that are right, and all that is wrong, with Taking Woodstock, it arrives toward the end of the second act. Eliot, desperate to see the concert, heads over to Yasgur’s farm to check it out. Along the way, he is stopped by a dreamy young couple (Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) who offer him a tab of acid. Within minutes, our hero is locked in a day-glo hallucination, the vibrant colors inside the hippies’ van melding and mixing into a glorious multi-tinted goo. Later, Eliot steps outside and sees the entire Woodstock nation, from small stage to massive throng, undulating like an ocean, ebbing and flowing over the image like a tide that’s about to turn.

It’s a wonderfully metaphoric moment, as strong a symbol of the event’s significance to the ‘60s as any since Hunter S. Thompson’s similarly styled “wave” monologue from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Sadly, it’s one of the rarities in a movie that would rather concentrate on quirk and ancillary individuals than anything of real impact or import. Granted, the story is set exclusively backstage, Tiber hoping to show how a little inspiration (and a great deal of communal faith) forged one of the major benchmarks of the counterculture. But without the concert itself, without some idea of what was going on a few miles away, Taking Woodstock misses out.

Lee makes the mistake of believing that everyone is well versed in both the actual three day showcase and the sensational documentary that resulted from it. He constantly riffs on both, reminding us of the post-modern mania of the time through split screen and other cinematic tricks. Yet within that assumption lays the problem. Woodstock is now 40 years old, its attendees moving beyond middle age into the twilight of their years. Several generations removed, it’s more of a talking point than a memory. You’ve got to give the fledgling 18 to 25 year old demo something to groove on, less they find your efforts a confusing trip down one person’s singular and insular memory lane. And since Tiber is not that compelling a figure, it’s up to the circumstances to carry the day. Unfortunately, they can’t.

That doesn’t mean that Taking Woodstock is a complete loss. On the contrary, there are times when you sense the subject matter trying to surpass its cinematic presentation for clarity and consideration. When Eliot is confronted by the real figures behind the show, names and faces we’ve come to recognize, we instantly click with the sequences. Similarly, when our hero takes the long walk to Yasgur’s to see the fruits of his scattered labors, there are iconic moments (the peace-sign waving nuns, cops with flowers in their guns) reminding us of our past memories of the movement. But then Lee spends way too much time on supporting situations, like Eliot’s lame home life, his latent homosexuality, and a bizarre turn by Liev Schrieber as a cross dressing ex-Marine who becomes Tiber’s bodyguard and confident. While trying to signify something, these outside issues instill nothing but nonchalance.

Even the added content on the new Blu-ray disc is underwhelming. Lee is on hand (along with prime suspect and scriptwriter James Schamus) to discuss his intentions, and it all sounds so noble and earnest. Sadly, much of that sentiment is missing from the movie. Similarly, the deleted scenes (including a few exclusive to the updated format) do little to remedy the superfluous nature of the narrative. It’s as if, by focusing exclusively on what happened miles away from the actual show, Taking Woodstock hopes to find some hidden message. Instead, it only uncovers what we’d expect from such a limited purview - minor interest and some otherwise unimportant information. Whatever his part in bringing Woodstock to White Lake (and there has been much contention about just how involved he was), Eliot Tiber’s story is a novelty, but nothing revelatory. Oddly enough, the movie made of his ‘adventures’ is even more nondescript. 

by Bill Gibron

13 Dec 2009

It’s a real quandary – how do you reinvent the war film, especially one that centers around Hitler, the Nazis, and the so-called “greatest generation”? For the most part, we all know the most intimate details of what happened. Indeed, when the History Channel and various other Discovery subsidiaries make their entire reputation out of giving you every nook, cranny, and complaint about the Allies, the Axis, and the various and sundry players in between, it’s hard not to. Hollywood spent the better part of the ‘50s and ‘60s reinterpreting the events at Normandy, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the last gasp unholy Hail Mary of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In between, the Swastika has become a shortcut for all encompassing evil, as well as a mark for easy enemy recognition and narrative villainy.

So the question comes again – how do you bring something new to World War II when everything is more or less known and knotted over? Well, if you’re Quentin Tarantino, the post-post modern mastermind of such brilliant cinematic deconstructions as Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, you simply ignore history. Instead, you take the reality of the European theater in 1943, add in several conspiracies regarding the Fuhrer, film itself, and a fiery band of ass-kicking Jewish soldiers, and turn it into the ultimate expression of warcraft wish fulfillment. No one will ever argue that Inglourious Basterds is factually accurate. Heck, it’s not even reverent to the source title it’s stealing from (an entertaining Italian effort from the mid ‘70s). Instead, Tarantino is rewriting the rulebook in every regard – spiritually, situationally, and most importantly, symbolically.

As the recently released Blu-ray reveals, Inglourious Basterds is, in actuality, an elaborate hoax, a farce founded on the notion that one well crafted cabal – and a glib Gestapo officer willing to sell out to secure his place in the post-war world – can lead to a fantasy finale with the leader of the Third Reich ripe for assassination. All throughout the bonus material, Tarantino suggests that he was making the movie he wanted to see as a kid, with the Allies as anti-fascist superheroes, fierce fighting marauders righting the moral compass with fists, knives, and rapid fire automatic weaponry. Sure, it may all seem like a lark, the high spirits of a creative infant with too much time, money, chutzpah, and reputation to do anything small or simple. Indeed, if you look beyond the surface and remove all the inaccuracies, you’ll see something as true to the varying policies and philosophies involved as any WWII documentary.

There are at least five separate storylines at play here, each one seemingly unrelated but actually set up to smash into each other with cataclysmic precision. One revolves around famed “Jew Hunter” Capt. Han Landa and his attempt to clean Occupied France of its ‘Juden’ problem once and for all. Another has one of the few to evade him, Shosanna Dreyfus, hiding out in a Paris movie theater. With the help of her assistant/lover, she intends to hijack a screening of a famous propaganda film, using the occasion to kill hundreds of Nazis with a well-placed bomb. Then we have American Aldo Raine and his band of Jewish soldiers. Like Landa, they scour the countryside, terrorizing their targets – in this case, German soldiers. Finally, England decides to send one of their newest spies – a former actor – into the fray, hoping to hook-up with a turncoat Berlin actress who is sympathetic to the Allies cause. With her help, they plan on getting as close to the Fuhrer as possible, and end his redolent reign of terror once and for all.

As one of 2009’s best films, Inglourious Basterds remains a singular vision of mind-bogglingly delicious design. If Tarantino’s motives were to inspire the long dormant bloodlust of a nation that didn’t get the chance to nab “the bad guys’ before Nuremburg and a Lugar’s bullet rendered its own inert justice, he’s succeeded in unexpected spades. It’s the kind of film that gets your heart rate up, that pumps your adrenalin as it stokes your already hefty genre reference points. As he did with his Hong Kong homage Kill Bill (Vol.1 & 2), the filmmaker finds a way to make the vast catalog of modern moviemaking work for him. The materials with Shosanna and the Parisian cinema is all natty ‘50s New Wave and intellectualized form deconstruction. Raine and his band of Hebrew brothers reminds one of every John Wayne workout made by an apologist studio system. The UK scenarios sizzle with a kind of celebrated ‘60s swing, while the sequences with Landa are direct reminders of the unfathomable hideousness that one human being can inflict (or imply to inflict) on each other.

By combining so many different facets, Tarantino does more than tell a tale. He manufactures myth. He creates a whole new reality, revitalizing the genre and the genre types in the process. It doesn’t hurt that the acting is so universally amazing, especially when it come to the two main male leads. Christoph Waltz, as Jew Hunter Landa, is so spellbinding, so slyly wicked and worrisome, that when he thwarts expectations in the third act, you kick yourself for not seeing his subterfuge earlier. Indeed, what Waltz does is so defining, so undeniably engaging and entertaining, that you find yourself rooting for the bad guy – in this case, a very, very bad guy. He’s not the villain you love to hate – he’s the rogue whose so malfeasant he’s magnificent!

Brad Pitt also sparkles as Raine, a remote Southern dandy (from Tennessee) who allows his gentlemanly accent to cover-up an equally vicious streak. He and the other ‘Basterds’ are not so much a force to be reckoned with as a means of addressing the Holocaust without showing mass graves or billowing smockstacks. As he reads his victims the riot act, explaining to them the rationale behind his men’s sadistic means of revenge, we feel the anger. We recognize the mean-spirited mischief, especially when Pitt stares directly at the camera and give a sinister little smirk. As the yin to Landa’s far more determinative yang, both represent the extremes of war – the inability to uncover the enemy even in the face of their colors. It’s these contrasts, and the various clockwork mechanics within the actual plotting, that make Inglourious Basterds so special.

With its behind the scenes significance, the bevy of material meant to contextualize Tarantino’s approach, the Inglourious Blu-ray is excellent - with one small exception…there’s no commentary. That’s right, the man more than happy to riff on Edgar Wright’s Spaced series, or Eli Roth’s Hostel films, but apparently felt his wicked war romp needed no discussion - at least, not now. And that’s a shame. When a movie is as ambitious and audacious as this, when it practically dare you to defy its brilliance, it more or less mandates a few words from the artist. The home video format may simply be a substitute for sitting in a theater full of cretins, but it’s also a medium for preservation. Perhaps after the necessary Oscar run (Waltz especially), a revamped “Ultimate Edition” will find the filmmaker talking. When faced with the daunting task of addressing antiquity head on, Quentin Tarantino found a fresh way of converting the legitimate into legend. Inglourious Basterds is a masterstroke of mischief.

by Bill Gibron

6 Dec 2009

In the long standing debate between movies as merchandise and film as art, the sex comedy usually get laughed out of the room - and not for the reasons you think. Humor has literally nothing to do with it. Instead, the skin farce, the lust lampoon, the cracked coming of age where wantonness subs for wisdom, is repeatedly snubbed, stuffed in the same lame category as exploitation - smutty without being significant, craven without being creative or clever. Naturally, most of these scholarly decisions are based on a limited sampling of said pseudo-smut. After all, how could you call Porky’s anything other than wimpy white lightning in a unexpected blockbuster bottle, or American Pie as pastry porn?

That’s where the Canadian classic Screwballs comes in. That’s right - CLASSIC. In fact, it’s safe to say that in the seedy subgenre of teenage boys begging to get their rocks off, this surreal statement is its Gone with the Wind. Yes, it’s prurient and pasty. Yes, it makes even a post-millennial audience groan with raincoat crowd crudity. No, it doesn’t have the kind of redeeming social value or aesthetic merit to keep communal moral compasses from veering wildly away from true North. What it does offer, on the other hand, is nothing short of a window into the world circa the early ‘80s, a chance to see how far we’ve come in the days since flesh was considered a felony, and even more shockingly, the lack of any real progress since.

The story centers on boobs - there’s no other way to put it. Reigning homecoming queen (and all around stuck-up snob) Purity Busch is rumored to have the hottest rack in all of T&A High. Naturally, this gets a quintet of hormonally overcharged delinquents - chronic masturbator Melvin Jerkovski, dorky science geek Howie Bates, fun loving cut-up Ricky McKay, self-proclaimed BMOC Brent Van Dusen III, and recent transfer student/regular guy Tim Stevenson - all hot and bothered. While serving detention, the guys come up with a scheme. With the help of “friendly” coeds Bootsie Goodhead, Rhonda Rocket, and Sarah Bellum, the boys will each use their wit and cunning to discover a means of checking out Purity’s pom-poms - and it looks like her last public act will be the perfect place for the unveiling.

As you can see, Screwballs is nothing if not subtle. It’s about as understated as a group of drag queens at a Sarah Palin rally. Writers Linda Shayne and Jim Wynorski give director Rafal Zielinski a nice clothesline narrative from which to work, letting the filmmaker follow-up with one unhinged cockamamie concept after another. From the stupid science inspired inventions used by Howie to the fey false bravado oozed by Brent, everything here is a lark. It’s turn of the century burlesque retrofitted for a slightly more permissive time. This is a movie that believes it is progressive, that measures men in hefty ham steaks while the gals are fully flowered in feminism. Why? Well, because the cheerleaders acknowledge their love of nookie while the guys goof around and grunt like Neanderthals.

This is a catch-all comedy, the brains behind the camera coming up with anything and everything to get a laugh. There are clichés and funny business formulas (the absent minded professor, the cougar-cat spinster type). There are archetypes and anarchy (the horndog principal, the centerpiece known as “strip bowling”). There’s even a small amount of social satire and critical commentary to be found - of course, you’ll have to look past all the heavy petting and raw naked human libido to see it. Indeed, the reason Screwballs stands as the ultimate sex comedy has little to do with the bodkin we see and much more with the attitude it offers. Being unapologetic is one thing. Tossing tons of unclothed actresses at the screen for no other reason than genre requirements is quite a different dynamic.

Besides, it’s all in good clean, non-Puritanical, gratuitous Great White North fun. Though Roger Corman’s name is tossed about as someone closely involved in this project, the connection is weak, to say the least (his company, New World Pictures, had some part in the distribution). Instead, this is a pure Rush and back bacon view of friskiness, a ‘baby it’s always cold outside’ combination of adolescent longing and upfront scatology. While it may sound like a knuckleheaded, nonsensical appraisal, it’s actually perfect for something like Screwballs. We don’t want half-baked nostalgia or Airplane! like joke-a-thons. We don’t need a cautionary counterbalance, or reminder of the imbalance within these gender politics. This is a movie that just wants to celebrate the basic human need for pleasure. It’s biology. It’s instinct. It’s what we are.

Luckily, sleaze salvage yard Severin Films has taken this often maligned movie and given it the full blown craven Criterion Collection treatment it deserves. The 1080p transfer is terrific, taking what is often a full screen pan and scan nightmare and turning it into a fresh, if still slightly dated, delight. The colors are crisp and the details prevalent. In addition, they add a bunch of complementary context, including deleted scenes, director’s commentary, cast and crew interviews, and two scholarly overviews - one by Canuxsploitation expert Paul Corupe, the other from celebrity nudity expert Mr. Skin. In tandem, and with the rest of the bonus features provided, they give this amazing film a new lease on life - critically, commercially, and categorically.

Of course, there’s a caveat. Let’s be honest, shall we? Screwballs does have some minor misgivings. The gals we see sans clothing couldn’t compete with the plasticine honeys humpin’ across late night subscription cable nowadays. And in the end, when the big reveal is made, we start to wonder if all the titty-based rigmarole was worth it. Yet the answer is obvious to anyone who has seen the film - Hell-friggin-yeah! Even without this wonderful format update, the blissfully sweet results speak for themselves. Screwballs is indeed a classic - just not for the standard cinematic reasons. As a movie, it’s genuine junk. As a faux-funny erotic epiphany, it’s nothing short of epic.

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