Category Archives: Parody

High Anxiety (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He’s afraid of heights.

Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) is hired as the new resident psychiatrist at the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very, Nervous where he is to replace another Dr. who died under suspicious circumstances. While there he becomes aware of many odd things occurring making him believe that the people running the hospital, Dr. Charles Montague (Harvey Korman) and Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman), have a scheme going on where they take in rich patients and pretend their conditions are worse than they really are, so that they can keep the patients hospitalized for indefinite periods and thus bilk the patient’s rich families for large sums of money. Richard, together with Victoria (Madeline Kahn) who is the daughter of another patient that is being held there against his will, become determined to expose the scheme, but his adversaries use nefarious tactics to try and stop him by taking advantage of his extreme fear of heights.

Per an interview that Mel Brooks gave with NPR in 2013 he revealed that he wrote a letter to Hitchcock in 1976 telling him that he wanted to do a parody of his movies and was interested in getting his feedback. Hitch wrote back saying that they should get together in his office to go over ideas. In fact it was Hitch’s suggestion to have the scene involving the birds pooping on Brooks. When the film was completed he got his own private screening and afterwards he sent Brooks a case of expensive French wine with the note: “A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this.”

Two of my favorite moments include a Psycho parody where a bellhop (played by a young and soon-to-be famous director in his own right, Barry Levinson) who stabs Brooks with a newspaper while he’s in the shower. The afore mentioned Birds parody is good too with the bird droppings made up of mayonnaise and chopped spinach, but because a helicopter was used during the segment it scared a lot of the pigeons causing real bird do-do to get mixed in with the fake stuff.

I enjoyed the bits involving a parody of the ‘gliding camera’ a technique used in many films where a camera shot begins on the outside of a building, but then somehow ‘glides through’ a wall and goes inside a place without any barrier. Here the camera shatters the glass as it tries to ‘glide through’ the window of the hospital, but Brooks almost ruins the moment by having the characters react by looking up to where the noise occurred, but then going back to their conversation, which makes no sense. If a camera operator has just crashed through a window, most people would get up from their seats and inspect the damage, which would’ve overplayed the joke, so they should’ve just had the characters not respond to the crashing noise at all. This same issue occurs at the end where the camera operators are heard talking just before they crash through a wall, but the scene would’ve played better without the banter.

The plot, as thin and goofy as it is, has some interesting moments. I especially enjoyed the segments done inside the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco and the way it takes advantage of the glass elevators there. The scene involving actor Ron Carey blowing up a picture that he took there in order to solve a crime is cool because it goes back to the old way of developing film, which will be a good education for today’s younger viewers who are more used to digital.

The performances are first-rate with Brooks in an uncharacteristic straight part though he still gets in a few zany moments including a segment where he’s a baby who falls from his high-chair. Leachman though steals it in a brilliant send-up of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In fact it’s her contorted face with no make-up and a faint mustache that leaves a lasting impression. She has stated that she disliked doing the role, but it’s so hilarious that I wished her part had been given a wider storyline.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 34 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Mel Brooks

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Bugsy Malone (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: The gangsters are kids.

It’s the 1920’s and rival mobsters, who are all played by children, fight over control of a club that illegally sells liquor. Fat Sam ( John Cassisi) is the one who currently controls it, but Dandy Dan (Martin Lev) makes a play at a violent overthrow in which his men attack the club by using machine guns equipped with whipped cream that ‘splurge’ their victims. Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio) is a penniless boxing promoter caught in the middle. He tries to help aspiring singer Blousy (Florrie Dugger) get an audition at Sam’s club, but then becomes distracted by Sam’s alluring girlfriend Tallulah (Jodie Foster) who causes Sam’s ire by flirting with Bugsy.

This odd concoction was the product of Alan Parker in his feature film directorial debut who came up with the idea while driving his kids on a weekend trip to a countryside cottage. To keep his kids entertained he started telling them a story about some prohibition era gangsters based on old gangster movies he had seen as a child. It was at one point where one of the kids brought up the idea of having gangsters be children instead of adults.

The first 15 minutes or so are quite inventive and fun. I enjoyed the freeze-frames showing each victim splattered with whip cream and the pedaled powered automobiles, but after awhile it starts to repeat the same gags over and over becoming a one-dimensional, one-joke flick.

I kept wondering where the adults where and despite this being a fantasy what exactly where the ‘rules’. Is this a type of universe where there are no adults at all and the kids remain at that age forever and if so does that ultimately then make them the ‘adults’? For me it would’ve been better had the story been book-ended with some connection to the world as we know it. Perhaps with a Wizard of Oz type structure where the film starts out, maybe even in black-and-white, with adults in the parts of the gangsters and then one of them gets hit on the head or drinks something with a drug in it and has this weird dream involving kids suddenly taking over the roles previously played by the adults. Showing the differences at how kids approached things versus how the adults do would’ve been a funny contrast instead of keeping it at the kiddie-level the whole way through, which ultimately falls flat.

The performances of the young cast are quite energetic although I could’ve done without the musical numbers. Cassisi, who in real-life ended up serving jail time of his own for money laundering, steals it with his humorous send-up of a mob boss. Baio is quite good too especially with his over-the-top Brooklyn accent, but I felt Foster got shamefully underused. If anything her role should’ve been combined with Blousy’s to make one and cutting out Florrie Dugger, who now goes by the name of Florence Garland, completely. I didn’t have anything against her per say, but she didn’t have the onscreen spark that Foster did. She also apparently disliked Baio and the scene involving her hugging him required many retakes as she didn’t want to get near him and this lack of chemistry comes through onscreen.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: September 12, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Alan Parker

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dog becomes a star.

Estie Del Ruth (Madeline Kahn) is a struggling actress still waiting for her big break. While roaming the streets she comes upon a homeless dog (Augustus Von Schumacher) and befriends it. Grayson (Bruce Dern) is a hapless tour guide driving a bus filled with tourists past the homes of the famous Hollywood stars. He’d rather be directing movies and has some great ideas, but is constantly getting turned down. Then one day famous studio mogul J.J. Fromberg (Art Carney) witnesses the dog saving Estie from a lecherous producer (Aldo Ray) and is so impressed that he wants to cast the dog in its own movie. Grayson, seeing this as his chance to finally break into the movie business, pretends to be the dog’s owner and therefore allowed to be in charge of directing the dog’s film, but the dog will only take orders from from Estie forcing him to allow her to tag along, but only if he helps her get a movie contract.

The story was originally titled ‘A Bark was Born’ and written by Cy Howard in 1971 and was an account of the famous 1920’s real-life dog star known as Rin Tin Tin. He commissioned Arnold Schulman to write the script for him. Schulman, who was coming off a good run of films as screenwriter including penning the scripts for Goodbye Columbus and Funny Lady decided to add some satirical elements to the story before finally handing it off to studio head David Picker to produce. However, the owners of Rin Tin Tin sued Picker for producing a film about their dog without authorization causing Picker to remove the fictional elements from the script and turning it into a all-out farcical parody of old-time Hollywood instead.

The film’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t give the viewer a feeling that they’re being transported to a different era as the 1920’s are played-up as being too cartonish and silly to be believable. The characters are caricatures that have no emotional connection to the audience, so watching their ascent into Hollywood success is neither interesting nor compelling. The humor relies too much on throwaway bits that have no connection to the main plot and mostly fall flat while moments that do have comic potential, like the dog only taking orders from Kahn, do not get played-up enough.

Kahn is a poor choice for the lead and single-handily bogs the production down, which wasn’t too great to begin with. She is perfect as a supporting actress playing over-the-top, eccentric characters, but as a normal person trying to elicit sympathy she does poorly. Lily Tomlin was the original choice for the part, but she wanted the script rewritten in order for it to have a more serious edge, which wouldn’t have been a bad idea,  but director Michael Winner wanted to keep the thing silly and lightweight and didn’t agree.

Dern, who expressed in an interview decades later, that doing this film was his one true career regret, is actually quite good and its fun seeing him play in a more lighthearted role versus the darker ones that have made up so much of his onscreen presence. However, by the second half he pretty much gets written-out, which was a shame. Ron Leibman, as the cross-dressing silent film star Rudy Montague, has a few interesting moments, but he plays the part in too much of an intense manner making him seem more creepy than funny.

Art Carney is not funny at all as the big-time studio head and the part would’ve been better served had it been played by Phil Silvers, who gets stuck in a much smaller role that does not take advantage of his comic talents. The rest of the cast is made-up of walk-on bits by famous stars of the past. Most these cameos are not amusing or interesting making their presence much like the movie itself quite pointless.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: May 29, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Michael Winner

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

!Three Amigos! (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Western stars travel south.

El Guapo (Alfonso Arau) and his gang terrorize a small village in 1916 Mexico by demanding that its residents pay him ‘protection money’ or risk getting pillaged. Carmen (Patrice Martinez), who is the daughter of one of the village elders, tries to come up with a plan to stop them and finds her solution after watching a silent film featuring The Three Amigos (Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Martin Short) who  fight evil doers and injustice. Thinking they are real heroes she sends them a telegram inviting them to her town to fight El Guapo. The Amigos, who have just gotten fired, think it’s an invitation to do a show and in desperate need of money travel across the border unaware of the dangers that await.

While the concept is ripe for great comic potential the script almost immediately starts showing its cracks. Now, I was not around in 1916, but it seems to me that people would’ve still been sophisticated enough to know the difference between movie acting and the real thing and the fact that Carmen, who is well over 18, doesn’t makes her seem a bit too naive. The three amigos aren’t much better as they fail to know the meaning of such words as infamous, tequila, or even veranda. Comedies based on misunderstandings can be highly enjoyable, but it still depends on the characters being reasonably intelligent to make it work and the group here are just too dumb to be believed making the whole scenario weak and watered down from the get-go.

What’s even more aggravating is that the film cheats on its own rules. Steve Martin scolds the bandits for using real bullets, as at that point he was still under the impression that they were fellow actors, but then the amigos’ guns end up having real bullets too even though if they were really just actors they should’ve been stage props with blanks. They turn out to be great shots too, able to shoot the bad guys even from long distance making them seem like actual gunfighters and not actors at all. There’s also a scene where Martin gets shot in the arm and while this might not be fatal it could still cause severe pain and infection, but there’s no scene showing it getting removed and bandaged up and  he continues to move it like it wasn’t even injured.

While it was interesting seeing Chase getting laughs for being a doofus as opposed to his snarky quips I still felt the three characters were too transparent. Not only is there very little contrast between their personalities, but there personal lives are never shown. These were supposedly big stars who should’ve had a big fan base, agents, friends, or wives/girlfriends, so the idea that they had ‘nothing to go back to’ and thus decided to remain in Mexico didn’t really make sense. Even with the argument that they had recently gotten fired from their jobs they should’ve had enough fame and connections in L.A. to find other gigs without immediately being so hard-up.

There’s a scene too where the three are shown sleeping together in a small bed, which seemed to intimate that they were gay. This never gets confirmed, but the film might’ve been more interesting had they been.

The moment where the three sing ‘My Little Buttercup’ inside a rough Mexican bar filled with bandits is the high point, but everything else is downhill. Instead for forcing these dimwitted actors to face the harsh realities of true western life outside of their Hollywood safe place it deviates into ill-advised surreal fantasy that contradicts the whole premise. The worst moment is when they sing a song in front of an incredibly fake looking sunset backdrop that features talking animals, which is so stupid that it destroys everything else that comes either before or after it.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: December 10, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Landis

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Cookie (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Daughter becomes getaway driver.

Dino (Peter Falk), a longtime racketeer, gets released from prison after a 13-year sentence. He meets up with his long time crony Carmine (Michael V. Gazz0) only to learn that Carmine sold off his share of the business, but now refuses to give him his entitled proceeds. Dino then plots an elaborate revenge and uses his estranged daughter Cookie (Emily Lloyd) to help him. At first the two don’t get along,but eventually forge a friendship when she proves to be quite resourceful as a getaway driver.

This movie proved to be the start of Lloyd’s career downfall. She burst onto the scene with her acclaimed performance in Wish You Were Here, which had all the critics fawning over her including Roger Ebert who called her performance “one of the great debut roles of a young actress”. With her new found fame she moved to New York at the age of 17 and immediately got the starring role in this film, which unfortunately proved to be her undoing as she showed erratic behavior on the set due to a condition that was later diagnosed as being attention deficit disorder. At one point during filming her irritated co-star Falk slapped her because she repeatedly flubbed of her lines, which caused her to then reportedly slap him.  It was behind-the-scenes stories like these that made studios reluctant to hire her and costing her to miss out on a lot of big roles.

While I’ll commend her ability to put on a very effective Brooklyn accent where you can’t even hear a hint of her native British one I still felt overall her performance here is quite weak and one of the main reasons that the film fails. Her facial expressions are too one-note and she shows an aloof detachment in all of her scenes almost like she really doesn’t want to be there. It’s evident onscreen that she and Falk didn’t care for each other making the bonding that their two characters have come-off as forced and insincere. I didn’t know why her character was even needed, I presume it was done to attract the all-important teen demographic, but she’s not funny and there’s long stretches where she doesn’t even appear. Her attire looks too much like the clothing style worn by Molly Ringwald during the 80’s and while that may have been the fashion it’s still good to have a character come up with a clothing style that is unique to them, so she doesn’t end up looking like just a leftover cast member from a John Hughes’ movie.

The supporting cast are what make this movie funny and had the story centered around them it could’ve been special. Gazzo is great as the mob boss who is intimidating one minute and then frightened and contrite the next. Dianne Weist, is quite funny too, particularly her extended crying bouts, as Falk’s mistress and Brenda Vaccaro steals a few scenes as his dog groomer wife. You can also spot Joy Behar in a brief bit as well as Jerry Lewis although his part is quite colorless and I’m surprised he even took it.

The script by Nora Ephron and Alice Arden relies too much on Mafia cliches while failing to add a unique or interesting spin to it. There’s also too many scenes, three of them to be exact, involving the explosion of a limo. One time is okay, but it saps away the surprise/shock value when it keeps happening and much like the movie itself fizzles out with a whimper.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: August 23, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Susan Seidelman

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), Amazon Video, YouTube

Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Asian detective solves case.

Police Chief Baxter (Brian Kieth) summons the retired Charlie Chan (Peter Ustinov) back to duty in order to help him solve a series of bizarre murders. Chan is also reluctantly assisted by his inept grandson Lee Chan Jr. (Richard Hatch) who shows no ability at solving anything and only causes chaos where ever he goes. As the case unfold Chan is at first convinced that his old nemesis Dragon Lady (Angie Dickinson) is the culprit, but he slowly turns his suspicions onto someone else who no one else suspects.

This is a perfect example of a movie that could never be made today as it features a white actor playing the part of an Asian American although the film did meet with strong resistance even back then. Many Chinese Americans protested by picketing locations were it was being shot and then later demonstrated at theaters that played it. Their complaints hinged around the Chan character being a racist stereotype particularly his ‘Chop-Suey pidgin English and fortune cookie-like proverbs’ all of which were very valid points.

What’s even worse is that the Chan character is not funny at all and the film would’ve been better had he not been in it. Ustinov acts like he’s just walking through the role with no energy or pizzazz and his singing over the opening credits, which I guess is meant to be intentionally bad in an effort to be ‘funny’, comes off as pathetically lame instead and could be enough to make most people want to turn off the film before it’s barely begun. Keith as the exasperated chief is far funnier and enlivens every scene he is in to the point that he should’ve been made the star.

Hatch as the doofus grandson is almost as bad as Ustinov, but even more annoying as he creates all sorts of disasters were ever he goes, but is completely oblivious to the pain and destruction that he causes others, which makes him come-off to being too stupid to be even remotely believable. On the rare occasions when he does realize that his blundering has caused issues to others like when he inadvertently knocks a bunch of TV reporters into a lake, he makes no attempt to help them out of the water, or even apologize for what he did, making him seem deserving of a big punch in his otherwise blank-eyed face. I was also confused as to why, if he’s Chan’s grandson, he wasn’t Asian.

The female actors perform better here. I enjoyed Lee Grant’s rare foray into comedy. Her acting skills are more tuned to drama, but the scenes where she talks to her dead husband’s ashes inside an urn are pretty good. Rachel Roberts, in her last theatrical film before her untimely and tragic death, is diverting as a super paranoid maid. Michelle Pfeiffer is quite engaging too as Hatch’s fiance. Her character is just as doopey as his, but she has enough acting skill to make it interesting and far outshines him, despite having less screen time.

The comedy is flat and has no focus to it as it alternates between slapstick and parody while haphazardly throwing in all sorts of uninspired gags that have little or nothing to do with the main plot and that includes a drawn out car chase in the middle that isn’t funny at all. It also features an ending similar to the one in Blazing Saddles where it becomes a-movie-within-a-movie as the characters run into a theater where a Charlie Chan movie is playing. However, this scene isn’t too well thought-out as it features Ustinov playing Chan on the black-and-white film that the theatergoers are watching, which makes no sense. For one thing the film being shown is an older one, so Chan should look younger on it, but he doesn’t. Also, why would Chan be playing himself in a movie? Isn’t he supposed to be just a detective, or are we to assume he’s also an actor starring in films when he’s not out solving cases? It would’ve been more amusing had Chan walked into the theater and saw another actor playing him on the screen and then started bitching about how he wasn’t doing it right.

Spoiler Alert!

There is one really inspired moment that is so cute it almost makes sitting through the rest of it worth it. I features Pfeiffer and Hatch tied up and being held hostage by a vicious dog who is tied to a rope with a candle flame burning throw it, which will then release the hound to attack the couple. In an effort to stop the flame from burning through they sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the dog, which then gets the dog to blow-out the flame like a person would blow out candles on a birthday cake.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Release: February 4, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Clive Donner

Studio: American Cinema Releasing

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

Stoogemania (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 0 out of 10

4-Word Review: Too much Three Stooges.

Howard F. Howard (Josh Mostel) is a man suffering from an obsession with the Three Stooges and it’s starting to affect his daily life and even is impending marriage to Beverly (Melanie Chartoff). He finds others that are having the same problem and the only way to cure it is to commit himself to Stooge Hills Sanitarium where he and others like him hope to rid themselves of their ailment through proper psychiatric care, but only if the inmates don’t overrun the asylum first.

It may seem hard to believe, but during the 80’s the Three Stooges franchise enjoyed a renaissance mainly due to its reruns being shown on TBS and the hit 1984 novelty song ‘The Curly Shuffle’. Personally I don’t get what the enjoyment is and  like with ‘Gilligan’s Island’ that somehow caught on with later generations, but in my opinion should’ve been forgotten instead. To me it’s just a lot of inane humor and predictable antics. If you’re 4 their routines might seem ‘hilarious’, but beyond that it most likely would bore anyone else and yet in the 80’s they were people out there that couldn’t get enough of the stooges including a former dentist of mine who had collected all of their film shorts.

If put in the imaginative hands of someone like Tim Burton this concept might’ve  worked, but with Chuck Workman at the helm it sinks fast. Workman has had a lot of success in directing documentaries and even won some awards for them, but his heart clearly wasn’t into this one. I almost wondered if he himself even enjoyed The Three Stooges or was just vomiting out some substandard product simply to collect a paycheck. The humor lacks even a modicum of cleverness and amounts to people acting incredibly stupid and equating this as being ‘funny’. No where is this more painfully evident then in the wedding scene that has first grade level pratfalls coupled with the dumb facial reactions from the actors and annoying cartoon-like sound effects, that are so stupid it starts to make the actual Three Stooges clips of which there are many that get shown here, seem brilliant by comparison.

Mostel is weak in the lead and had it actually been his father Zero Mostel, who had been cast here it would’ve done better. Zero had great ability to play off the camera and wonderful facial expressions and reactions that could keep even the worst of movies that he was in fun, but his son comes-off like some fat blob of a guy who got into the business simply by riding on his father’s coattails. Besides, if this is supposed to be a parody of the Three Stooges then why not have three men in the lead instead of just one?

There’s a host of other famous faces that drop in and out here including: Thom Sharp (who actually is kind of funny here), Sid Caesar, Victoria Jackson and Bill Kirchenbauer, but none of them can save this disaster that amounts to being an embarrassment even to the name of the Three Stooges and will most likely disappoint even those that enjoy them.

My Rating: 0 out of 10

Released: October 10, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 23 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Chuck Workman

Studio: Atlantic Releasing Corporation

Available: VHS

Tunnel Vision (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lame parody of television.

The year is 1985 and due to a new Bill of Rights an uncensored television network has been created, which causes many viewers to become hooked on its content watching it for hours while neglecting their other responsibilities. The head of the network, Christian A. Broder (Phil Proctor) is brought in for a senate hearing where the network’s programs are examined by a government panel to see if it should be allowed, or if censoring it would be the better option.

What was considered ‘pushing-the-envelope’ in its day would now barely pass as a blip on the radar of the average seventh grader. I was honestly expecting much more sex and nudity here, but ultimately the film offers very little and nothing is worse than smug filmmakers thinking they’re making something ‘edgy’ when they really aren’t. I also got tired of seeing a close-up shot of a plastic eyeball popping out of a woman’s lipstick laden lips, which I suppose might be considered by some as being sort-of sexy looking, but after it gets shown over and over again it becomes annoying.

The overall tone is too inconsistent. Certain provocative bits get lumped in with a lot of goofy, mindless ones, which creates a casual chuckle every 20 minutes or so but then coupled mainly with a lot of groans in between. The film also never cuts away to show any reaction shots of the conservative committee who are supposedly watching these ‘shocking’ clips, which could’ve added in an extra layer of humor. The viewer is also required to be highly familiar with mid 70’s programs and commercials as otherwise many of the in-jokes will go completely over their heads especially to those born at a later time.

The film was written and directed by Neal Israel who managed to have one hit Bachelor Party in 1984, but overall his other output conveys the same mindless, lame comedy as this one and whose talents seem limited. Had there been some visual flair it might’ve helped, but everything looks like it was filmed inside someone’s suburban home using low-budget home movie-like production values. Also, for a film that was supposed to be a peek into the future it certainly doesn’t have much of a futuristic design and instead reeks of mid-70’s sensibilities.

Of course there’s a lot of politically incorrect bits here too, which includes a parody of ‘All in the Family’ that features a Romanian gypsy family that spouts every conceivable ethnic slur, but this segment like so many of the others are just not that funny or imaginative. The only interesting aspect about the film is that, besides showing some young up-and-coming stars at the beginning of their careers, it also features many behind-the-scenes announcers whose voices you’ll immediately recognize, but not their faces, so seeing them in front of the camera for a rare time like Donny Darko who portrays a newscaster named Steve Garvey is kind of cool, but otherwise this thing is nothing more than a dated dud.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: March 3, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 7 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Neal Israel

Studio: World Wide Pictures

Available: DVD

Nickelodeon (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Making a silent movie.

The year is 1913 and Leo Harrigan (Ryan O’Neal) is tired of being a lawyer and representing sleazy clients, so by chance he gets a job writing scripts for silent movie mogul H.H. Cobb (Brian Keith). Later on he’s sent to California to direct his first silent film, but he has no experience doing that and finds that he has a rough relationship with the film’s leading man Buck Greenway (Burt Reynolds).

When this film first came out Columbia Pictures was convinced that they had a big hit on their hands and to celebrate they allowed everyone attending the L.A. premiere to pay only 5 cents to get in, in order to correspond to the price of admission during the silent film era. Yet many of those who attended were not satisfied with the movie causing critic David Sheehan to claim “it wasn’t worth paying a nickel to see.”

It’s hard to know who to blame as both sides have differing accounts for what went wrong. David Begelman, the then head of Columbia Pictures, loved the script, which was written by W.D. Richter and had by all accounts a good dramatic edge to it, but when they gave it to Peter Bogdanovich to read he described it as a ‘piece of garbage’. Yet they decided to hire Bogdanovich to direct it anyways by promising him he could change the script any way he wanted as Begelman considered Bogdanovich to be a ‘cinematic genius’ and that ‘everything he touched turned to gold’. Bogdanovich on the other hand stated that he liked the script as it was, but was pressured by the studio to add in farcical elements as they were hoping to recreate the magic of his earlier film What’s Up Doc?.

In either case the attempted comedy doesn’t work and the gags, which come at a rapid-fire pace, ultimately become more mind numbing than anything. The only funny bit is the extended fistfight between O’Neal and Reynolds while everything else sinks into mundane silliness. Supposedly some of the story is based on the real-life remembrances  of film veterans Raoul Walsh and Allan Dwan, but with so much misguided zaniness thrown in it’s hard to know what if anything to take seriously.

The story desperately needed more of a focus. Having it about a small cast and crew trying to make their first silent film and the many challenges that it would entail could’ve been both amusing and revealing, but the story jumps ahead too much. We see the characters in one setting at one moment and then on a whim the film fast forwards to them in some completely different setting a year or more later, which never allows the viewer to connect emotionally with the people or what they’re going through.

O’ Neal is good playing a befuddled sort who simply reacts to the goofiness around him while Reynolds is excellent as the rough and tough good ole boy and their budding love/hate friendship should’ve been the film’s main focus. Supermodel Jane Hitchcock, in her one and only feature film appearance, is easy on the eyes, but her part was originally intended for Cybill Shepherd, who would’ve given the role more edge.

The cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs is pristine as is the period detail, but the story takes on too much especially the second hour, which just goes from one tangent to another.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 21, 1976

Runtime: 2 Hours 2 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Peter Bogdanovich

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

History of the World, Part I (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Making historical events funny.

In 1979 Mel Brooks was riding high after directing 4 hit movies and as he was walking across a studio parking lot a man who had worked on his crew from his previous films asked him what his next project would be. Brooks, feeling the pressure to come up with something big and splashy, told him it was going to be about the history of the world. This film ended up being the result of that conversation although it’s hard to call it a movie at all since it’s really just a collection of vignettes dealing with 4 specific periods: The Stone Age, The Roman Empire, The Spanish Inquisition, and The French Revolution.

At first glance it’s almost shocking that something this overreaching could’ve been produced to begin with. Had anyone but Brooks approached the studio heads with this concept it would’ve been slapped down immediately and the person told not to come back until they had an idea that was more focused, but because of Brooks’ prior success these same executives decided to swallow their better judgement. Not only did they unwisely give it the green light, but they threw more money at it than any of his previous film budgets combined; a whooping 11 million, which all pretty much goes to waste.

It’s not like there aren’t a few funny moments here and there: the musical number during the Spanish Inquisition, the Last Supper parody, and the Jews in space all elicit a few chuckles, but the rest of it’s lame and corny like skits from some mediocre variety show. An overarching character that would’v been in all of the scenes was needed like a time traveler from the modern day who goes back and interacts with all the people from the time periods, which could’ve been a riot.

A lot of familiar faces pop in-and-out, but many of them are onscreen for only a few seconds. A better idea would’ve been to whittle down the cast list to only a handful of performers and then having them play the different roles in each time period instead of just introducing more stars into the mix, which only helps to give the already bloated production a very cluttered feel.

Not only does Brooks cast himself into too many of the film’s major roles, which makes the thing seem like a vanity project, but he also relies too heavily on his aging Hollywood friends in supporting parts instead of introducing a young vibrant talent into the mix that could’ve helped attract new, younger fans. It also doesn’t help that Richard Pryor was set to play a big role in this, but then just two days before shooting he suffered a serious accident that burned his face and forced him to bow out leaving Gregory Hines to replace him who is not nearly as funny or dynamic.

I couldn’t help but connect this thing with Bill Cosby’s mega-flop Leonard Part 6.  Apparently many people on the production crew of that film felt the material was subpar, but too afraid to approach Cosby, who was such a big star at the time, to tell him. I can only presume there were also people on the crew of this film who felt the same way, but didn’t want to jeopardize their careers by speaking up, which is too bad. While this movie did ultimately make money it was mainly during its first week and enthusiasm due to bad word-of-mouth quickly dwindled afterwards. Brooks reputation never fully recovered, which is why no one even a big star should be above constructive criticism, which  might’ve helped modify this clunker into becoming something better.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: June 12, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Mel Brooks

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Blu-ray