Bowling for Dollars: Kingpin (1996)

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Farrelly Brothers movies are akin to family gatherings. They are filled with extreme neuroses, unexpected violence, and deep undercurrents of affection. Their films are even populated with friends and relatives from their Rhode Island home. Listen to any of their audio commentaries and you’ll find that half the actors are bankers and car salesman who grew up with them back east. Every time I see a Farrelly feature I think of how Manny Farber described Howard Hawks’ “weird mother hen instinct.” The Farrellys have it as well, just weirder.  Dumb and Dumber was their directorial debut and an enormous hit, a tale of ignorant male friendship that lowered scatalogical slapstick so far it went below lowbrow and out the other side. It’s also their first attempt at depicting the bonds of brotherhood, in which Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels perform a kind of radical acceptance of each other’s flaws — through complete stupidity, but still (they treated the same theme with greater complexity in Stuck on You, their greatest film and biggest bomb).  The long-gestating but certainly not maturing sequel, Dumb and Dumber To, comes out next month.

The Farrellys follow-up to the original Dumb and Dumber, though, will never get a sequel, though it did come out on Blu-ray last week. Kingpin is another tale of success-challenged males learning to live with the other’s failure, this time in the lacquered middle-aged crisis world of bowling. Though where Dumb and Dumber is an abstract performance piece, as Carrey and Daniels could have been performing in front of a blank wall to similar effect, Kingpin tries to embed its outrageous characters into a semblance of the real world. Each bowling alley and auto-body shop is lovingly detailed, and essential to the development of its sad sack characters. The lead failure Roy Munson, Jr. (Woody Harrelson) is from the made-up small town of Ocelot, Iowa, a corroded rust belt city where he was once its proudest son as State Bowling champion, while ending up in a pit-stained flophouse in Scranton, PA dodging his scrofulous landlord’s bill. He sees a way out in the smooth stroke of Amish naif Ishmael (Randy Quaid), who he thinks can win the big bowling competition in Reno, and take down his longtime nemesis Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray).

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September 20, 2014
David Kalat
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The Horn Blows at Midnight Blows, or Does It?

This morning (Saturday the 20th) TCM is running the notorious flop The Horn Blows at Midnight. Chances are by the time you read you’ll either have already seen it or already missed it, and nothing I can say here will retroactively change that. But I’m going to yammer on about it for a few paragraphs because that’s what I do.

Regular readers of this blog know that “notorious flops” are always ripe for redemptive reappraisals. I’ve personally come out swinging on behalf of the likes of Popeye and Neighbors, my fellow Morlocks have defended the honor of Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate (not posted here, but by Greg Ferrara nonetheless.  Go on click the link, you know you want to.)

But The Horn Blows at Midnight offers a special sort of edge case for this sort of approach, as we shall see.

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KEYWORDS: Jack Benny, Raoul Wa, The Horn Blows at Midnight
COMMENTS: 11
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September 13, 2014
David Kalat
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Jean and Clara, Bombshell and It

Coming up on Friday on TCM is a delightful pre-Code screwball comedy called Bombshell. If you haven’t seen it before, you owe it to yourself to catch up with it this time around since it is at once a zippy, aggressively paced comedy with one of early film’s most glamorous comediennes, while also being a sharp-edged and angry satire about Hollywood power dynamics and women’s sexuality. It is also an M.C. Escher-like knot of in-jokes and life-imitating-art-imitating life self-referential whorls. It is a bubbly, bitter comedy emerging from the intersection of two great comediennes, whose earthy sexuality was both their ticket to stardom and their downfall; two women whose careers were tragically destroyed before they reached the age of 30 but who managed in that short window of time to permanently etch their names and memories into pop culture posterity. You’ll be hard-pressed to identify 90 minutes of celluloid that accomplishes more than this.

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KEYWORDS: Bombshell (1933), CLara Bow, It, Jean Harlow
COMMENTS: 6
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Unfollowing The Golden Rule: Good Sam (1948)

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“I’ve tried to break him of it…but he just loves people!”  -Lucille (Ann Sheridan) complaining about her husband Sam (Gary Cooper) in Good Sam

In 1948 Leo McCarey was coming off the biggest hits of his career, as Bing Crosby’s singing priest in Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) topped the box office. Both films were amiable attempts at humanizing Catholicism, moving from the inaccessible Latin mass to the lucid curative powers of pop crooning. They also feature McCarey’s talent for improvisation - Bells features a Nativity scene enacted by children who replace “O Holy Night” with “Happy Birthday”. For Good Sam, McCarey again returned to a religious theme, placing a man of saintly selflessness in the bourgeois suburbs. Sam’s insistence on giving away his time and money to those around him frustrates his wife Lucille, who has to deal with the human consequences of his do-goodism. That is, she has to care for all the strays he brings home as their nest egg slowly dissipates. Lucille is the cynical realist to Sam’s idealist Christian (they’re Episcopalian), but their love allows them to bridge the philosophical gap. It is, for the most part, a bitterly funny film. It posits the impossibility of saintliness in a materialist society, and McCarey mourns this loss through comedy rather than tragedy. Decades later, after the film had disappeared from view, McCarey stated, “the moment was ill chosen to make a film about apostleship.” This fascinating, frequently hilarious apostle-out-of-time feature  is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.

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August 16, 2014
David Kalat
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Robin Williams, My Popeye

I had planned to run something else here this week, but in light of this week’s tragic news regarding Robin Williams, I’ve shoved that essay to a later week and opted to re-run an oldie but a goodie, my fifth ever Movie Morlocks post from four years ago about one of my very favorite movies, which happens to star Robin Williams  (apparently when I re-posted it, the original comments reposted with it!).

The actual piece itself makes a passing mildly unkind remark about Williams, within the context of praising one of his most notorious flops.  I thought about rewriting that section but decided against it because it felt dishonest.  And as schmaltzy as Williams ever was, he was never dishonest.

There is a curious distinction to be drawn between “pop culture” and “popular culture.”  It’s a divide that’s been opening up in American entertainment ever since the days of Elvis–arguably ever since jazz–but the 21st century’s media fragmentation and Internet communities have only hastened the pace.  To put it simply, “pop culture” loves Community; “popular culture” loves NCIS.  And there was a time when Robin Williams was an anarchic rebel force from pop culture, and a time when he opted to make career choices driven by popular culture.  The hipsters of pop culture never forgave that defection; the vast majority of America never saw it as a defection in the first place.

Below the fold: the story of an oddity that belongs to neither pop culture nor popular culture, despite being a splashy musical comedy from some of America’s most accomplished satirists and starring its then-up-and-coming beloved comedian superstar, adapted from one of the most ubiquitous and enduring characters of 20th century pop/popular art.

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KEYWORDS: bill irwin, comic book films, harry nilsson, jules feiffer, Musicals, Popeye, Robert Altman, Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall
COMMENTS: 66
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July 26, 2014
David Kalat
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Pryor convictions

Richard Pryor stood on the stage of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC in 1998.  It was an unusual audience for the veteran comedian—a bunch of stuffed shirt politicos and hoity toits, there to award Pryor with the Mark Twain Prize for humor, and to congratulate themselves for doing so.  He was 58 years old—and although no one knew it at the time, he had less than a decade left to live.

Those 58 years had been filled with incident: he was born in a brothel, forged his comic fearlessness in front of the Vegas Mafia, set himself on fire while free-basing cocaine, and played a computer hacker in Superman III.

Addressing this audience of VIPs, Pryor said that he considered his mission as a comedian to be more than just making people laugh—it was using that laughter as a tool “to lessen people’s hatred.”

As it happens, we can see this noble calling at work in a particular scene of Pryor’s 1976 film Silver Streak.

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KEYWORDS: Arthur Hiller, Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Silver Streak
COMMENTS: 19
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“I’m Not an Actor, I’m a Movie Star”: Notes on ‘My Favorite Year’

MFYbenjyTonight and tomorrow evening, TCM presents six movies produced through Brooksfilms, the production company headed by Mel Brooks. In addition to Brooks’s comedies, the company has been responsible for a variety of movies not associated with the comic mind that spawned Blazing Saddles, including my favorite David Lynch film, The Elephant Man, and a gothic horror flick called The Doctor and the Devils.

Tomorrow night, TCM airs the Brooksfilms production My Favorite Year, which happens to be my favorite Peter O’Toole movie, though fans of his more lauded signature roles might disagree. Set during the Golden Age of Television, when prime-time programming was produced live in New York, the story unfolds from the perspective of Benjy Stone, a junior writer on the comedy series The King Kaiser Show. O’Toole plays Hollywood movie star Alan Swann, who is guest-starring on the show because he needs the money. Benjy is assigned to watch Swann throughout the week of preparation and rehearsal, because the star lives as large as his image, chasing women and drinking at every opportunity. As a result of their week together, Benjy, who is both disillusioned and awestruck by Swann, grows from a wise-cracking kid into a mature young man.

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May 17, 2014
David Kalat
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2B OR NOT 2B (2)

As part of TCM’s tribute to the films of Mel Brooks, his 1983 remake of To Be Or Not To Be is screening on Tuesday.  It’s a curiosity to be sure—too slavish to the Lubitsch original to really find its own voice as a Mel Brooks film, yet too much of a Mel Brooks film to bear easy comparison to the Lubitsch version.

Brooks and Lubitsch are ultimately very different filmmakers with very different comic sensibilities.  Lubitsch was known for his oblique, indirect touch—often mistaken for “subtlety.”  But there’s a difference.  Lubitsch lobbed bawdy joke after bawdy joke at his audience, but in ways designed to just barely miss the target cleanly, and instead not fully register as dirty.  The viewer is inundated by these off-target gags to the point they know they’ve seen something ribald, even if they can’t quite put their finger on quite what.

By contrast, Brooks nails every gag.  He nails every gag to the floor, that is, and then sets up flashing hazard lights around them to make sure everyone spots them.

My choice of language probably gives away that I prefer Lubitsch’s dry wit to Brooks’ rimshot muggery, but so what?  Yes, I have my tastes and preferences, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also admire Brooks and enjoy his films, too—this isn’t a zero sum game.

But when both men set out to film the same script, comparisons are going to be made, winners are going to be chosen.

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KEYWORDS: Ernst Lubitsch, Mel Brooks, To Be or Not To Be
COMMENTS: 10
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What, Harold Lloyd Worry?

haroldposterWhile Chaplin and Keaton remain the giants of silent comedy to modern-day movie lovers, Harold Lloyd was the most popular film comedian and the biggest box-office draw during the 1920s. His movies out-grossed Keaton’s comedies, and after Chaplin began to fret over his features, Lloyd out-produced the Little Tramp. In 1927, Lloyd was the only performer on Variety’s list of the top 20 wealthiest people in show business (see An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture by Richard Koszarski.) Having seen many of his feature films, including Safety Last, Speedy, Girl Shy, and The Freshman, I can understand his appeal. Youthful, optimistic, and persevering, Lloyd’s so-called “glass” or “glasses” character suited a decade in which Americans sought to better themselves economically, acquire consumer goods, and partake of the American Dream. Lloyd’s comic persona, who was always called Harold in his films, was not disenfranchised like Chaplin’s Little Tramp nor a misfit like Keaton’s Great Stone Face. Instead, he was akin to the hapless boy next door who worked hard to get ahead and win the hand of the girl. Even his costume was “normal” in that it was purchased off the rack and not an exaggerated ensemble from the costume department of Hal Roach’s studio.

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March 22, 2014
David Kalat
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Think Pink

Recently I’ve been reading Sam Wasson’s wonderfully spirited biography of Blake Edwards.  Wasson argues eloquently that Edwards is long overdue for a significant critical rehabilitation as one of comedy cinema’s great directors, to be spoken of in the same breath as Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, or Woody Allen.  But here’s the thing: even in this gloriously pro-Edwards manifesto, even here we find the Pink Panther franchise getting slagged off.  Sure, Wasson celebrates the original Pink Panther (on TCM tonight!) and its brilliant follow-up A Shot in the Dark, but of the others he writes: “the Panther franchise did little to enhance anything but Edwards’ bank account.”

Well, golly.  If you aren’t gonna find love for the Pink Panther franchise in the book that calls Blake Edwards an unsung genius, then where are you gonna find it?

Here, of course!

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KEYWORDS: Blake Edwards, Peter Sellers, The Pink Panther
COMMENTS: 14
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