Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Looking Back At Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein

(review contains spoilers)

Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder struck comedy gold with this hysterical send-up of the horror classics Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein.

Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974) has aged extremely well. It's still just as sharp, entertaining and hilarious as it was when it first appeared on the big screen nearly 40 years ago. It's without a doubt one of the funniest and well-crafted comedies ever committed to celluloid. Very few, if any, comedies released today will have the type of longevity and continued relevance that Young Frankenstein has enjoyed over the years. For the most part, today's comedies are a lot like fast food; they satisfy your appetite but are quickly forgotten after the meal is done. Not so with Young Frankenstein, as it's a five-star meal of a comedy that you continue to savor long after the credits have rolled.

Brooks Updates And Puts Comedic Twist On Horror Film Classic

The film stars Gene Wilder as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, a young neurosurgeon and a respected lecturer at an American medical school. He is the grandson of the infamous Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who was vilified for his highly controversial reanimation experiments in which he attempted to bring the dead back to life. For years, Frederick has tried to live down his eccentric grandfather's much-maligned legacy. He believes his grandfather was mentally unstable and a disgrace. Frederick is so ashamed of his family name that he tells people that it's pronounced "Fronkensteen" instead of Frankenstein.

However, Frederick's negative view of his grandfather gradually changes after he inherits his family's estate in Transylvania. The estate houses the laboratory where his grandfather conducted his reanimation experiments. Before long, Frederick is continuing his grandfather's work in reanimation. And after many failed attempts, he successfully brings back to life a massive man, which he and his assistant, Igor, exhumed at the graveyard. Frederick's plan is to make his reanimated subject the perfect human specimen who possesses tremendous physical strength as well as superior intellect. Unfortunately, Frederick's experiment goes terribly awry when he learns that Igor mistakenly gave him a defective brain to put in the monster. The film follows Frederick's attempts to civilize his behemoth creation and even teach the monster a few dance steps and show tunes along the way.

Film Has Look And Atmosphere Of An Old Horror Film

One of the most striking things about Young Frankenstein is its look. Much detail and thought was put into the set design and photography to give the film an authentic classic horror movie look and atmosphere. Brooks shot in the same castle that the James Wales' 1931 classic Frankenstein was filmed. He also used the same electrical apparatus for the laboratory scenes that was used in the horror classic. Additionally, Brooks filmed the entire movie in black-and-white, and he used1930s-style opening credits as well as period scene transitions, such as iris outs, wipes and fades-to-black to give it that old classical look. Cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld and set decorator Robert De Vestel did a tremendous job on this film. Everything about the film was immaculately done, from the set design and cinematography to the costumes, the writing, the acting and the music score. Brooks' longtime composer John Morris provided the film's exquisite period score. The music evoked a classic horror film ambiance.

Film Boasts Incredible Cast

Brooks assembled a sensational cast for this film. The cast is uniformly strong down to the smallest roles. There are an inordinate number of stellar performances to be found in this film. Marty Feldman is flat-out brilliant as Frederick's droll hump-backed assistant Igor; Cloris Leachman is a howl as Frau Blücher, the strange caretaker of the Frankenstein castle; Madeline Kahn is extremely funny as Frederick's neurotic fiancée Elizabeth. With this role, Kahn illustrated what an amazingly gifted comedic actress she was.

Additionally, Wilder is terrific as the frazzled, slightly unhinged Frederick Frankenstein. And Peter Boyle does a great job at humanizing the monster with sly, knowing looks and hilarious double takes. His expressive face and body language convey so much that no words are necessary. And Teri Garr sets the screen on fire as Frederick's Swedish bombshell assistant Inga. In this role, Garr proved that she was not just another pretty face but also a very talented and funny actress. And Gene Hackman does a bang-up job in his cameo as a lonely blind man who befriends the monster. Brooks had so much confidence in his cast members that he allowed them to ad lib in a number of scenes, which greatly increased the spontaneity and humor of the film. And there are several other great supporting performances in the film.

Brooks and Wilder Capture Comedy Magic With Young Frankenstein

Brooks and Wilder collaborated on the film’s excellent screenplay, which is filled with clever one-liners and hilarious dialogue. The two manage to keep the story entertaining and interesting while continuing to deliver big laughs. In many comedies, the plot is just a vehicle through which comedians can do their funny shtick. However, in this film Brooks and Wilder take the plot very seriously and infuse it with not just very funny comedic scenes, but a great deal of emotion and pathos as well. With Young Frankenstein, the two have created a bona fide comedy masterpiece. The movie should be required viewing for any film student who has aspirations of becoming a comedy director or writer.

Young Frankenstein at Amazon

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Spike Lee Reminisces about his Youth in Crooklyn

Spike Lee takes a nostalgic trip back to his childhood in this touching semi-autobiographical film about the struggles of a Brooklyn family in the early 1970s.

Crooklyn (1994) is probably Lee’s warmest and most sentimental film. It’s a big departure from the films he typically directs. His films usually address controversial subjects and are politically charged. In this semi-autobiographical film, the director slows down the pace a bit and takes a warm look back at his youth in Brooklyn, New York during the early 1970s. It's a simple, straightforward story with no social or political agenda to be found. Much of the film has the same slice-of-life appeal as his landmark film Do The Right Thing but sans the controversial themes. As in the Do The Right Thing, most of Crooklyn takes place in one neighborhood and focuses on the events and residents in that area.

The film immediately draws the viewer in with its exhilarating opening sequence. It opens with a vibrant scene on a block in a multiethnic Brooklyn neighborhood where numerous children are out playing; some kids are jump-roping, some are playing stickball and others are playing hopscotch among other lively games and fun activities. The block is alive with youthful energy. And the opening is set to the gorgeous strains of "People Make The World Go Round" by the Stylistics. Lee has always had a good ear and eye for setting scenes to music, and this is a perfect example of it.

The film's protagonist is ten-year-old Troy Carmichael (played by Zelda Harris). Troy is a spirited and outspoken young girl. Growing up in Brooklyn and living with her four rowdy brothers has given her a thick skin and made her tough. She can dish it out as well as any of her brothers. Troy is in constant battle with her oldest brother Clinton (Carlton Williams), who is as hardheaded as they come. Clinton loves to tease and bully his little sister for fun when he's not watching his beloved New York Knicks play on television. Clinton is clearly based on Spike Lee, right down to the slight build, big glasses and the filmmaker’s devotion to the Knicks. Troy devises different ways to get back at her older brother. On one occasion, she uses his prize collection of buffalo nickels to buy ice scream for herself and her friend. Harris does an excellent job of portraying the plucky young Troy. Lee was so impressed with her work in Crooklyn that he later cast in his 1998 film He Got Game.

Critically acclaimed actress Alfre Woodard plays Troy's no-nonsense mother Carolyn. She is the parent who lays down the law in the dysfunctional household. Delroy Lindo (Malcolm X , Get Shorty) plays Troy's father, Woody, who is much more lenient with the children. Woody's an unemployed jazz musician who's constantly at the piano composing his original music. He refuses to play popular music (which he thinks is mostly garbage) any longer and only focuses on his own music. Woody's stubborn refusal to play the type of music that could bring more money to the household upsets Carolyn, as the family's forced to get by on her salary as a teacher and the rent from their border. This and his leniency with the children cause acrimony between the couple, and they are separated for a short time.

Troy Experiences Culture Shock When She Visits Her Relatives In Virginia

Towards the end of the film, Lee shifts gears and has Troy visit her relatives in a Virginia suburb for a month. The move from Brooklyn to a Virginia suburb is a huge culture shock for Troy. Initially, she hates everything about the South and her Southern relatives but eventually starts to warm up to her surroundings. She learns to appreciate the slower and quieter way of life during her stay, and she develops a close friendship with her young cousin Viola (Patriece Nelson). It was a good idea to have Troy visit Virginia, as it provides a nice contrast to the chaotic scenes in Brooklyn. And Frances Foster is a hoot as Troy's flighty Aunt Song.

This film has a number of memorable scenes. One highlight has all five kids dancing along with the Soul Train dancers on TV as they groove down the legendary Soul Train line. Another great scene has Troy and her friends making fun of each others' hairstyles while sitting on the stoop in front of her house. The scene is at once funny and touching and will no doubt remind many viewers of the silly arguments they would get into when they were kids. In addition, there is an extremely funny scene in which Carolyn wakes up all the kids at four in the morning to clean up the mess they left in the kitchen.

Oddball Characters

The film has an array of oddball characters, including the family's annoying, weird neighbor Tony Eyes (David Patrick Kelly), whose house is a pigsty and reeks so bad that his neighbors are constantly complaining, and the wild-eyed, glue-sniffing Snuffy played by Lee.

Talented Young Newcomers Do A Great Job Playing The Carmichael Children

The young actors who play Troy's siblings do a marvelous job. In addition to Carlton Williams, they include Sharif Rashed, Tse-Mach Washington and Christopher Knowings. Also, Alfre Woodard and Delroy Lindo are terrific as the Carmichael parents. Both bring strong, nuanced performances to their respective roles. The remainder of the cast is also quite good.

Highly Entertaining Film From Start To Finish

Crooklyn is an underrated gem and a nice change of pace for Lee. It's poignant and funny as well as consistently entertaining. Some may complain about the near wall-to-wall music in the film, but Lee utilizes it so well in setting up scenes that it doesn't feel at all intrusive. Lee, his sister Joie Lee, and their brother Cinqué collaborated on the film's great screenplay. Lee should reminisce more often on film.

Crooklyn at Amazon

Related blog entry: Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing Revisited

Friday, July 4, 2014

Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train: Farley Granger and Robert Walker Star in Lauded Hitch Film

A chance encounter between two strangers on a train leads to murder in this classic suspense thriller.

(review contains spoilers)

Strangers on a Train (1951) is one of Alfred Hitchcock's most recognized and praised films and is considered one of the foremost suspense thrillers in cinematic history. The film is based on American author Patricia Highsmith's first novel of the same name. Famous detective novelist Raymond Chandler was one of the screenwriters who adapted Highsmith's novel for Hitchcock's film. The other writers involved on the screenplay were Czenzi Ormonde and Whitfield Cook.

Murder Swap Plan

The film begins with a chance meeting between two men on a train. Amateur tennis champ Guy Haines (Farley Granger) meets rich, spoiled socialite Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) after the two men accidentally bump shoes. Bruno immediately recognizes Guy from his pictures in the paper. Right away Bruno becomes overly familiar with Guy, asking him personal questions about his rocky marriage to his trampy, adulterous wife Miriam and his romantic relationship with Anne Morton, the daughter of a U.S. senator.

The scene has clear homoerotic undertones as it feels like Bruno is hitting on Guy. At first Guy is wary of Bruno's forward behavior but feels he's harmless enough and is cordial to him. During their conversation, Bruno tells Guy about his domineering, hard-nosed father who has recently been putting pressure on him to get a job and make something of himself. Bruno feels going to work and punching a time clock is beneath him and doesn't want any part of it. Bruno no doubt was a problem child and continues to be a burden to his father as a young adult. Bruno's worried that his father will eventually cut him off if he doesn't attempt to get a job and try to do something with his life. Thus, he feels he has to do something drastic before this happens.

In a half-joking manner, Bruno hypothetically suggests that the two exchange murders: Guy kills Bruno's father, and Bruno kills Mariam, "Crisscross." Bruno believes that the murder-swapping plan is perfect because neither would have any motive for killing a complete stranger, so there would be no connection tying them to the murders. Guy assumes that Bruno is joking and humors him, telling him it's a good idea. Guy gets off the train and doesn't give what Bruno said a second thought. Later on, to Guy's horror, Bruno tells him that he has indeed murdered Miriam and is now demanding that Guy keep up his end of the bargain and murder his father. Bruno's homicidal action sets off a psychological and suspenseful game of wits between the two men. It's compelling how Bruno keeps pulling Guy deeper and deeper into his dark, murderous plan to the point where Guy feels like a trapped prey.

Hitchcock Keeps The Tension High throughout Film

One of the things that makes the film so entertaining is that Hitchcock manages to sustain a high level of tension and suspense throughout. He keeps the audience on its toes with a number of unexpected twists and turns. Another significant component is that Hitchcock infuses the film with his trademark morbid sense of humor. His gallows humor can be found in most of the scenes involving his daughter Patricia Hitchcock, who plays Anne's younger sister Barbara ("Babs"). Babs is a kind of a strange girl who apparently has no filter and blurts out whatever she's thinking, much to the annoyance of her stern and rigid senator father. Bab's character is oddly charming. You can't help but like her.

Film Boasts Great Cast

The cast is uniformly good. Ruth Roman does a terrific job as Guy's romantic interest Anne Morton. Her character is all cool sophistication and haughty elegance. She just oozes class and style. She's the polar opposite of Guy's trashy wife Miriam. Kasey Rogers plays the role of Miriam with raunchy sex appeal, a bespectacled Jezebel with a devilish grin. The standout of the cast is Robert Walker as Bruno. Walker does a tremendous job in his role as the psychopathic Bruno. He's alternately menacing, desperate and vulnerable in the role. And Farley Granger is top-notch in probably the least colorful role in the film as the straitlaced Guy. His character is a great foil for the unbalanced and homicidal Bruno.


There are also some nice subtle touches in the film, for instance, when Guy gently straightens Bruno's tie after punching him in the face. It's a great moment as it shows the type of person Guy is in that he could still show kindness to someone who's attempting to ruin his life. And the scene also brings attention to the homoerotic undercurrent of the film. Or the scene when Miriam is flirting with Bruno at the amusement park the night he murders her. She looks over her shoulder to see if he's still following her, and when she turns back around, he' standing right next to her, seeming to appear from nowhere like an apparition.

Additionally, there's an excellent scene in which a very angry Guy is talking to Anne on a phone from a phone booth about his wife Miriam, who refuses to give him a divorce now that he's made some money playing tennis. While he's venting about Miriam, the sound of a train grows louder and louder, and when he finally yells into the phone, "I said I could strangle her!" the train goes by him and nearly drowns his words out. The sound of the train is a reference to the conversation he had with Bruno earlier about exchanging murders, and it also foreshadows Bruno killing Miriam by strangulation.

The Master Of Suspense

This film illustrates why Hitchcock was such a highly respected and critically acclaimed director. He knew how to grab an audience's attention and hold it in a vice grip. He was a great at building tension and suspense and would always sprinkle ample doses of his twisted, dark humor in his films to help counterbalance their more gruesome and horrific moments. They didn't call him "The Master of Suspense" for nothing.

Strangers On A Train at Amazon