Friday, March 30, 2012

To Be Or Not To Be (2) vs. Top Secret! (15)




BACKGROUND:


        “To Be Or Not To Be” is a WWII comedy set in wartime Warsaw after the Germans have occupied Poland. It was released in 1942 and was bashed by critics for making fun of the ever-serious Nazis.  The plot centers on a Polish acting troupe led by the egotistical Josef Tula (Jack Benny) and his loose wife Maria (Carole Lombard). They get involved in a plot to stop the Gestapo from getting information from a spy. It requires their acting skills and even includes an imitation of Hitler.

        “Top Secret!” was released in 1984 and was directed by the “Airplane!” team of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker. It is set in Cold War East Germany. An Elvis Presleyesque American singer named Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) meets a beautiful girl named Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge). He gets involved in a Resistance plot to rescue her scientist father.  Low brow comedy ensues.

FIRST HALF: ACTING

       “To Be Or Not To Be” has the pairing of Benny and Lombard. They are in top form. Both are perfect for their roles and the chemistry is apparent. Benny is hilarious in parts. The supporting cast is strong and all have their moments.  For instance, Maria's maid delivers some stabbing one-liners.  Even the Nazi Col. "Concentration Camp" Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) is sinister, yet comical.

        “Top Secret!” features an impressive performance by Val Kilmer. He really gets into the silly role and carries the film. It’s hard not to enjoy his mugging.  He also does an amusing imitation of Elvis and sings convincingly. The rest of the cast is weak, but other than Rivers this is not a character movie. The actors are just there as props.

First half score: “To Be Or Not To Be” - 45      “Top Secret!” - 37


SECOND HALF: HUMOR

         “To Be Or Not To Be” is the perfect 1940s war comedy. It has a good plot, great acting, suspense, some great lines, and is consistently amusing. The one liners are spaced for best effect – the opposite of “Top Secret!” It also deserves credit for aiding the war effort by lampooning the Nazis at a time that they were fearsome. Benny does a great job making fun of hammy actors and his marriage to Maria is obviously a take-off on Hollywood celebrity pairings.  Some of the dialogue is very funny.

       “Top Secret!” is from the “Airplane!” school of frenetic humor. In this tournament it closely resembles “Hot Shots!” I have a theory that if a comedy has an exclamation point at the end, you can expect it to be silly with tons of jokes. It is a little less gag-crazy than “Hot Shots!” and includes some funny scenes spoofing Beach Boys music and teen idol performances. There are two unique scenes: a scene in a bookstore that is run backwards and an incredible underwater barroom fight sequence. There are lots of sight gags, but most are cute rather than funny.  Many are painfully silly (e.g., flying people shitting on a statue of a pigeon).  Some of the gags are very dated.   Who under fifty would get a Ford Pinto joke today? (By the way, it’s hilarious.)

Second half score: “To Be Or Not To Be” - 44 “Top Secret!” - 42


ANALYSIS:

       Once again, we have a match-up between old school and new school. In other match-ups I have argued that modern humor is funnier than old-time humor. However, acting and writing still rule. Quantity does not defeat quality when it comes to most comedies. Especially when the quantity of jokes comes with a low percentage of yuks. I happen to be a fan of the “Airplane!” school of comedy and do not mind cringing and laughing at the same time. (By the way, has anyone else noticed no similar movie has managed to top the original?) I do not mind feeling guilty about laughing. I have a soft spot for “Top Secret!”, but it does not stand up to “To Be Or Not To Be”.  The movie is now considered a classic and is ranked #49 on AFIs greatest comedies.  You could argue that it is underrated.  One thing you cannot argue is that "Top Secret!" belongs on the same list.

FINAL SCORE:


TO BE OR NOT TO BE   89


TOP SECRET!                79



Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Duck Soup (3) vs. The Russians Are Coming (14)




BACKGROUND:


       “Duck Soup” is the Marx Brothers’ manic send-up of war and the governments that provoke them. It was released in 1933 and is now considered their greatest work. Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, the leader of Freedonia. He is more interested in getting at rich widow Mrs. Teasdale’s fortune and goading his rival, the ambassador of Sylvania. Chico and Harpo are spies employed by the ambassador. There is not much of a plot, but it leads to war.

       “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” is a Cold War comedy directed in 1966 by Norman Jewison. It is a satire of Cold War relations and small town life. A Soviet sub runs aground off an American island. Rumors spread among the rubes and the public panics. Meanwhile, the sub’s executive officer (Alan Arkin) and a squad attempt to steal a yacht to extricate the sub. There is a chaste courtship between a Russian sailor and an American girl. All the running about and shouting leads up to a tension filled Mexican stand-off that is diffused by a crisis that requires the two sides to cooperate.

FIRST HALF: ACTING

        “Duck Soup” is a tale of two sets of actors. Groucho (Firefly), Chico (Chicolini), and Harpo (Pinky) are in top form. Margaret Dummont gamely recreates her usual butt of Groucho’s insults and Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino) is satisfactorily pompous and scheming. Everyone else is second rate (although Trentino’s vampish girlfriend is sexy, especially for a 30s movie). Zeppo is his usual wooden self playing Firefly’s aide named Bob Roland (he couldn’t even get them to give him a ridiculous name?). The whole movie depends on your tolerance for the “acting” of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo (especially).

       “The Russians Are Coming…” has a cast of recognizable, but mostly unnamable character actors. The secondary cast is straight out of a 1960s Disney movie. The leads are strong. Alan Arkin as Rozanov won the Golden Globe and was nominated for the Oscar. It was a star-making turn. Carl Reiner as a writer whose family is held hostage is okay, Brian Keith is sufficiently gruff as the police chief. Jonathan Winters plays his usual character (goofily incompetent) as a deputy.  The rest of the cast could best be described as comforting.

First half score: Duck Soup - 38 The Russians - 40

SECOND HALF: HUMOR

        “Duck Soup” is ranked as #5 on AFIs list of 100 Greatest Comedies. That is way too high. The plot is weak and the movie is basically an excuse for Groucho’s nonstop one-liners (a very bad drinking game - drink everytime Groucho says a sentence that is not a joke), Chico’s silly wordplay and puns, and Harpo’s physical comedy. Many of the jokes fall flat, but there are so many of them that you get a lot of good laughs. The movie means to be satirical, but some of it seems to be unintentional. It is hard to believe the Marx Brothers intended for the movie to have the deeper meaning that critics attribute to it. It has some classic scenes (e.g., the mirror scene), but also some cringe-worthy song and dance numbers. The final scene in the farmhouse is a pretty hilarious, but silly lampoon of war.

        “The Russians Are Coming…” is an amusing, but not funny movie.  Do not fear.  The poster is wrong - you should have no fear of "dying laughing".  I seldom laughed. It is well-meaning and painfully liberal. This probably explains the hard to believe Academy Awards nominations for Best Picture (!), Best Actor (Arkin), and Adapted Screenplay. It won the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy. It tries hard to thaw relations between the superpowers. Contrast that with the biting satire of "Dr. Strangelove" and it comes off as lame. For example, there is a running gag of the town drunk chasing a horse so he can reenact Paul Revere’s ride. Many of the characters are buffoonish small town hicks. The Russians are just like us. Why can’t we just get along? Not mirth-making material.

Second half score: Duck Soup - 38 Russians - 30

ANALYSIS:

       Both of these movies are overrated. The difference is the reputation of “Duck Soup” increased after its disappointing opening run and it remains solid as a classic. ”Russians” was highly thought of when it was released because people wanted to like it. It does not hold up well except as a curio. “Duck Soup” is messier and manic, but without a doubt funnier.

FINAL SCORE:
     DUCK SOUP                 76
     RUSSIANS                    70



Saturday, March 24, 2012

The General (4) vs. Tropic Thunder (13)





BACKGROUND:


       "The General"(1926) is the classic Buster Keaton comedy set in the Civil War. Keaton plays a Southern railroad engineer named Johnnie Gray (get it?) who is turned down when he tries to enlist (and is not told it’s because he has an important job). He loses his girl because she thinks he is a coward. His locomotive, the General, is stolen by Yankee spies as part of a plan to take Chattannoga. Johnnie gives chase and comedy ensues. He rescues his engine and his girl (who had been kidnapped) and is in turn chased back to Rebel lines. He then takes part in the battle and emerges a hero.

        “Tropic Thunder” (2008) is a spoof of actors, movie-making, and war movies. It was written, produced, and directed by Ben Stiller. It is set in Southeast Asia, where a movie about a Vietnam War prisoner of war escape is being made. The film is over-budget, behind schedule, and the director cannot control his actors. The studio head threatens to shut the film down. The director decides to shoot the movie “guerrilla-style” by placing the actors in the jungle and filming their actions. Has-been action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is captured by a drug gang and the other actors come to his rescue.

FIRST HALF: ACTING

       “The General” is a tour-de-farce by Keaton. His stone-faced Johnnie is funny without speaking (which is crucial because the movie is silent). His body language and physical humor are amazing. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is below par. His girlfriend Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) is game (Keaton physically abuses her in some scenes), but not impressive. The rest of the cast are your typical silent movie actors with their white faces and their arms flailing.

       “Tropic Thunder” is an interesting blend of top-notch comedians (Stiller, Jack Black, Danny McBride) and serious actors who prove their comedy chops (Robert Downey, Jr. and Tom Cruise). All of the main cast are excellent. Downey is hilarious as the method actor (ala Russell Crowe) that has his skin blackened to play an African-American soldier. Stiller is great as the obsolete action star (Stallone, etc.) who went “full retard” in his last role. Jack Black is his usual manic self as the drug-addled, flatulence-talented Eddie Murphy clone. The revelation is Cruise as the studio chief. His exuberant performance rocks the screen.

First Half Score: Tropic Thunder - 46   The General – 35

SECOND HALF: HUMOR

       “The General” is old-school silent movie humor. Little of the dialogue is subtitled so the movie obviously relies on sight gags and slapstick. I counted 27 falls in the film (mostly by Keaton). Note: good drinking game – take a hit every time someone falls in this movie. It is not the most sophisticated humor you can find, but I guess people rolled in the aisles back then. Some of it is funny (there’s a bit with a sword that is amusing ), but some of it is just silly (e.g., a bit with a bear trap). Keaton’s physical performance (he did his own stunts) and facial expressions are commendable. He is one of the greats.

        “Tropic Thunder” is a polarizing movie. I can see why some people were offended by it. There is a white man playing a black man and humor at the expense of retardation. Plus the language is very potty. However, if you admire a film with balls and a taste for lunacy, you should enjoy it. It has some gut-busting lines and situations. The actors are uniformly funny. As a satire of war movies, it is the gold standard. Anyone who has seen “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now” has to admire the inspired skewering.

Second half score: Tropic Thunder - 48 The General - 32

ANALYSIS:

        “The General” is rated #18 on AFIs list of 100 Greatest Comedies and “Tropic Thunder” is unlikely to make the top 100 the next time they come up with the list. However, just because a movie is a classic does not mean it holds up well. Unless you are very prudish, you cannot seriously argue that “The General” is funnier than “Tropic Thunder”. “The General” deserves credit for using an historical event (the Andrew’s Raid) for humor, but “Tropic Thunder” trumps that by making fun of the war movie genre. That makes it a greater war comedy than comedy.

       As a post script, I would like to mention that this match-up was pure coincidence and yet we have the oldest great war comedy versus the most recent.  This clearly shows how humor has changed over the decades.  What we found funny in the 1920s is different than what we find funny today.  I won't argue that humor today is better than back then, but I think Hollywood does reflect what society feels is funny.  A movie similar to "The General" would be a flop today.  We can enjoy classic comedies, but I find that they bring smiles, not laughs.  Movies like "Tropic Thunder" bring laughs, but I feel guilty about some of the things I am laughing about (or at).  Still a laugh is better than a smile.


FINAL SCORE:
Tropic Thunder     94  
The General           67



Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mister Roberts (5) vs. Hot Shots (12)



BACKGROUND:


       “Mister Roberts” is a service comedy released in 1955. It is set on a cargo ship, the U.S.S. Reluctant (“the bucket”) . Mister Roberts (Henry Ford) is the humane second in command to the tyrannical Lt. Cmdr. Morton (James Cagney). Roberts is responsible for the efficiency that got Morton a palm tree as a reward. Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon) is the slacker ladies man and William Powell is the sage-like doctor. Roberts has a strong desire to get to a combat vessel before the fun ends. However, he has to give up his transfer requests in order to get the crew liberty at a port. He agrees to kowtow to the captain. The crew thinks he has turned into a typical officer until the secret is revealed.

       “Hot Shots” is a spoof of war films in general and “Top Gun” in particular. It was released in 1991 and was directed by one of the “Airplane!” guys. The plot (such as there is) involves a corrupt contractor’s attempts to sabotage a secret mission named Sleepy Weasel in order to get the Navy to order his fighter. Topper Harley (Charlie Sheen) is talked out of retirement to join the mission. He is suffering from mental anguish over his father’s involvement in another pilot’s death (he was mistaken for a deer by a hunter after surviving a crash). His squadron mates include the walleyed Washout (future co-star Jon Cryer) and Dead Meat. He and his rival Kent Gregory (Cary Elwes) are both interested in Ramada (Valeria Golino). The mission to bomb an Iraqi nuclear power plant does not go smoothly, but Topper saves the day.

FIRST HALF: Acting

        “Mister Roberts” has an all-star main group – Fonda, Cagney, Lemmons, and Powell. They are all great in their roles. Lemmon won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He steals the show as the wolf with women, sheep with the captain. The crew has many familiar faces and some very capable character actors.

        “Hot Shots” is populated with B-Listers. Sheen is adequate as the lead. He seems to be having a good time and must have enjoyed being paid for little effort. Lloyd Bridges has fun with the role of the senile Admiral. It takes an old veteran to keep a straight face through the lines he has to spout. Golino is pretty, but average as an actress. The rest of the cast is unmemorable. Elwes is wasted.

First half score: Mister Roberts – 45 Hot Shots – 33

SECOND HALF: HUMOR

       “Mister Roberts” has the distinct feeling of a play (which is what it is based on). And it has the subtle humor of most comedy plays. There are few laugh out loud moments. It is much more serious than “Hot Shots” and even has a depressing ending. The gentle humor makes fun of the Merchant Marine and the dynamics between the officers and the crew. In many ways it is a drama with humor integrated very efficiently.

      “Hot Shots” is clearly from the “Airplane!” school of comedy. The gags begin during the credits and no minute goes by without at least one joke. The jokes mostly fall into sight gags, slapstick, and just plain silly. You do not need to be sophisticated to enjoy the humor (and if you are, you probably will not like it). There are even running gags ( e.g., people keep sitting on a chihuahua, don’t ask). Some of the humor is low-brow, but inspired. The whole story of Dead Meat, which begins with his having pictures of every loved one on his bunk and ends with every bad omen you can imagine leading into his last flight, is hilarious. The skewering of “Top Gun” is pretty effective, but the other parodies are lame. Many of the jokes fall flat, but if you prefer quantity over quality in your comedies – it would be hard to beat.

Second half score: Mister Roberts - 33 Hot Shots - 40

ANALYSIS:

        “Hot Shots” has its dedicated fans, but you need to be drunk or high to laugh at most of the jokes. It bludgeons you with a constant bombardment of gags. Many of them are painful, but there is something to be said for groaners especially when you know the filmmaker does not care and is being paid by the joke. It makes no attempt to be remembered as a classic. It has no point to make.

        “Mister Roberts” could not be more different than “Hot Shots”. It is adult comedy. It takes itself seriously. The acting is great and the plot is strong. The movie is one of the most respected war comedies. The movie was nominated for Best Picture and is considered a classic. Its most memorable character won an Academy Award. You will not laugh as much, but it is definitely a better war comedy than “Hot Shots”.

FINAL SCORE:
      “MISTER ROBERTS” - 78
      “HOT SHOTS” - 73



Saturday, March 17, 2012

MASH (6) vs. Kelly's Heroes (11)




BACKGROUND:



          MASH is a satirical/dark comedy set in the Korean War. It was released in 1970 and is obviously satirizing the Vietnam War. Most of the action takes place in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and the stars are a trio of very talented doctors who are very reluctant conscripted warriors. Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland), Duke (Tom Skerritt), and Trapper John (Elliot Gould) rock the boat on arrival with their insubordinate attitudes, womanizing, and drinking. They take on the regular Army in the guise of fundamentalist Maj. Burns (Robert Duval) and career rule-follower “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). The film is episodic and concludes with a football game reminiscent of “The Longest Yard”.

         “Kelly’s Heroes” came out the same year as MASH. It is an action comedy set in the closing stages of WWII. Kelly (Clint Eastwood) finds out about a bank behind enemy lines with millions of dollars worth of gold bars. He recruits a squad led by “Big Joe” (Telly Savalas). They need armored support so they hook up with three Shermans crewed by hippies led by “Oddball” (Donald Sutherland). Things don’t go smoothly, naturally. Maj. Gen. Colt (Carroll O’Connor) thinks the mission is a breakthrough and gets involved. The squad reaches the town with the bank and have to deal with a garrison and three Tiger tanks.


FIRST HALF: ACTING


        MASH has an outstanding cast. Sutherland and Gould were at their counter-culture peaks. Kellerman got a Best Supporting Actress nod. The rest of the supporting cast is strong. The episodic nature allows several actors to make an impression.  Surprisingly, the best actor (Duval) is not given much screen time.

        “Kelly’s Heroes” has the distinction of being one of the best casted war movies of all time. Each of the main roles is given to an actor who you can argue was perfect for the role. Who would have made a better Kelly than Eastwood? Who better to play the scheming “Crapgame” than Don Rickles? The list goes on. The acting seems effortless because they are basically playing themselves (or at least their screen personas).

Halftime score: MASH - 47 Kelly’s Heroes - 47


SECOND HALF: HUMOR


       MASH is ranked #7 on AFI’s 100 Greatest Comedies list. It was nominated for Best Picture and won for Best Adapted Screenplay. It won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy/Musical. It has a few laugh out loud moments like “Hot Lips” as a cheerleader, but most of the humor is in the dialogue. Hawkeye and Trapper John have sharp tongues. When Burns is provoked into attacking Hawkeye, Trapper warns “Watch out for your goodies, Hawkeye. The man’s a sex maniac. I don’t think Hot Lips satisfied him.” The humor is very anti-army and some of it is mean-spirited. Not surprising for a movie aimed at the Vietnam War.

       “Kelly’s Heroes” is more of a standard action movie set in war than a comedy. It has its humorous moments, but it has too much violence and death to leave you with a smile on your face. The humor is provided mainly by Oddball with his anachronistic hippie pronouncements. “Don’t hit me with those negative waves.” To give you an idea of the ratio of action to comedy just examine Rickles’ performance. He never breaks into a stand-up routine like Williams does in “Good Morning, Vietnam”. Not once does he call anyone a hockey puck.


Second half score: MASH – 42 KH – 30


ANALYSIS:


       I am a big fan of "Kelly’s Heroes" and certainly do not mind when a fictional war movie throws in humor (see “Inglorious Basterds”). But the fact is that the humor is secondary to the action. There are few laugh out loud moments and one minefield scene that is the opposite of humorous.  The body count is very high. The blend of humor and action is a good one and you could argue it is a better movie than MASH, but you can not argue it is a better comedy. MASH uses comedy to satirize the military and war. It is bitingly effective. Similar to KH, it has dark moments, but noone of consequence dies. It blends realistic surgery with humor effectively and would not exist without the humor, unlike KH.

FINAL SCORE:  MASH - 89   KH - 77 


Monday, March 12, 2012

#7 - Good Morning, Vietnam vs. #10 - Private Benjamin





BACKGROUND:

        “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987) is the story of a military disc jockey named Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams). He arrives in Vietnam and immediately rocks the boat at the stodgy radio station. He plays rock n’ roll and makes hilarious comments and does comedy routines between songs. Off base he falls in lust with a Vietnamese girl and befriends her brother who turns out to be a V.C. operative. The relationships with the girl and her brother take some rocky roads which parallel his troubles at work.

         “Private Benjamin” is the story of a Jewish princess (Goldie Hawn) who enlists in the Army after her husband dies on their honeymoon. She goes through boot camp under the disapproving scowl of Sgt. Lewis (Eileen Brennan) and miraculously comes out an elite soldier stationed at NATO headquarters. She ends up quitting the Army to marry a suave European and the movie builds to their wedding.

FIRST HALF: ACTING
       “Good Morning, Vietnam” is a star vehicle for Williams and he dominates. It is one of his best performances. Although he is playing Cronauer, he is really playing himself (especially during the radio show scenes). His dramatic work is impressive. He was nominated for Best Actor. The supporting cast is strong. The other DJs are distinctive and fleshed out. Bruno Kirby does an unenviable job as the painfully uptight, humor-challenged supervisor. J.T. Walsh is slimy as the villainous station manager.

        “Private Benjamin” is a star vehicle for Goldie Hawn. She was nominated for Best Actress. It is probably her best movie. Her performance is not as assured as Williams’and she does not have to stretch as much. Brennan was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and is solid. The rest of the cast is weak, however. The stock squad of misfits is second-rate and make little impression. Amazingly, P.J. Soles (“Stripes”) is in this movie as the suck-up.

Halftime score: GMV – 43 PB - 36

SECOND HALF: HUMOR

         “Good Morning, Vietnam” is a comedy/drama that blends manic schtick by Williams with a romance set in the decaying situation in the war. The drama parts are bridges between the stand-up comedy routines and are breathers from the humor. The movie is funniest when Williams is on the air, but laughs are dependent on how much you like Williams’ style. He appears to be ad-libbing a lot and the jokes are hit-or-miss. Of course, he is made out to be the most hilarious person in Vietnam. In the dramatic section, Williams’ throws in snark to keep the comedy flowing, but most of those scenes are pretty serious and sometimes depressing.

         “Private Benjamin” is a service comedy in the first half and a tale of female empowerment in the second half. Hawn is very funny as the clueless rich girl who has to adjust to boot camp, but when she suddenly becomes a model soldier rather than fulfill her father’s condescending attitude, the laughs come to a screeching halt. The courtship with Henri (Armand Assante) is humorless and predictable. You wait for the inevitable ending while squirming.

Second half score: GMV – 38 PB – 32

ANALYSIS:

        GMV is #100 on AFI’s list of greatest comedies and PB is #82. I can live with GMV being included in the top 100 because it has an interesting take on the Vietnam War circa 1965. It even presents a balanced view of the Viet Cong. The blending of comedy with romance and drama is more quality-consistent than PB. PB is very overrated. It starts strong, but wilts after that. The only laughs come from Hawn’s whiny reaction to boot camp. The romance with Assante is painfully unfunny. In fact, the second half ceases to be a war movie when Benjamin drops out of the Army and returns to her previous life (only now she is empowered!). GMV is funnier and a better movie.

FINAL SCORE: Good Morning, Vietnam – 81 Private Benjamin - 70


Saturday, March 10, 2012

MARCH MADNESS: The Best War Comedy

    This year's March Madness tournament will determine the Best War Comedy of all time.  I am limiting the field to American movies.  I chose the movies based on my knowledge of war movies, various lists on the Internet (like the American Film Institutes list of 100 Best Comedies), and input from war movie lovers.  Once I narrowed the list down to 16, I seeded based on their ratings on Rotten Tomatoes.  Each round will compare the movies on two criteria.  The first round will use Acting and Humor.  I will watch all 16 in the next few weeks.

Here is the bracket:

1 - Dr. Strangelove

16 - 1941

3 - Duck Soup
14 - The Russians Are Coming!

5 - Mr. Roberts
12 - Hot Shots!

7 - Good Morning, Vietnam
10 - Private Benjamin

8 - Stripes
9 - Catch-22

6 - MASH
11 - Kelly's Heroes

4 - The General
13 - Tropic Thunder

2 - To Be or Not To Be
15 - Top Secret

Game on!!







#8 Stripes vs. #9 Catch-22


BACKGROUND:
        “Stripes” (1981) is a boot camp/adventure comedy starring Bill Murray. He plays a loser named John Winger who enlists with his best friend Russell (Harold Ramis). They go through boot camp under Sgt. Hulka (Warren Oates) and by miraculously overachieving at graduation, their unit is given the mission of protecting a militarized RV. John and Russell steal the RV to go on a tryst and the rest of the unit gets captured behind the Iron Curtain going to get them.


         “Catch-22” (1970) is the retelling of the famous book by Joseph Heller. The main character is a WWII bombardier named Yossarian (Alan Arkin). He wants out of combat, but because he is sane enough to know that he is crazy to go on the missions that proves he is not crazy (a dilemma called “Catch-22”). The movie follows several of the pilots on base and off. The incidents are layered over the creation of a syndicate run by Milo (Jon Voight) which turns their war into a business enterprise.


FIRST HALF: ACTING


       “Stripes” is a star vehicle for Murray and he is at his snarky best. His character is pretty much an asshole and yet Murray makes him likeable. He is ably served by Ramis who makes a great straight man and does some funny takes. Oates (like Palance in “City Slickers”) is perfect as the drill sergeant and does not allow the character to be lampooned. The heterogeneous unit is populated by comic stereotypes that the supporting cast (especially John Candy as Ox) handle deftly.  The female love interests for Murray and Ramis are weak, but pretty.


        “Catch-22” has more of an all-star cast (including Orson Welles). Many of them are considered higher quality than the “Stripes” cast. Arkin, the equivalent of Murray, does a bit more scene-chewing, but his character is much more stressed and the movie is more heavy-handed in pushing its message. The supporting cast is excellent and plays the satire straight.


Halftime score: Catch-22 - 45 Stripes - 40


SECOND HALF: HUMOR


      “Stripes” falls into the classic service comedy genre pioneered by Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello. Murray is hilarious as the anti-hero and has numerous snarky one-liners. More importantly, it’s a team effort and each character has his moments to make us laugh. The boot camp segment satirizes several war movie clichés effectively - the hair cutting, the obstacle course, the poker game, out on the town. The movie peaks with the iconic graduation scene. “That’s the fact, Jack.” The second half is an action comedy that is less humorous, but gets in the requisite explosions.


       “Catch-22” is a dark comedy that is very anti-military. It is much more intellectual and satirical. The movie also does not have a linear structure so it requires more effort by the viewer. Parts of it are even surreal. There are few jokes, the movie is more situational and character driven. It is a message movie, not a make-them-laugh movie. In this respect it is humorous in a head-nodding way. However, it could also be described as depressing in spots. It certainly has more of a point to make than “Stripes”, but for pure humor does not stand up.


Second half score: Stripes - 45 Catch-22 - 35

Analysis:  If you judge the movies on their success in reaching their demographic, "Stripes" is the clear winner.  It's humor was aimed at 14 year old boys (and those that still are) and it hit the target on the head.  Not just the humor, it throws in a ladies' shower scene and a nude female mud-wrestling scene just to be sure.  Part of me found this shameful, but...  On the other hand, "Catch-22" aims for the high-brow anti-Vietnam War set and is something of a disappointment.  (By the way, it throws in full-frontal so we'll call that a tie.)

FINAL SCORE: Stripes - 85 Catch-22 - 80

Winger's Speech


What is "catch-22"?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

#42 - The General


BACK-STORY: “The General” is Buster Keaton’s masterpiece although it took a while for the critics and public to realize that. The movie was a commercial and critical bomb when it was released in 1926. Thankfully Keaton lived to see the revival of its reputation in the 1960s. Recently the American Film Institute ranked it the 18th greatest film and the 18th greatest comedy (don’t ask). This must have been heartening since he co-wrote, co-directed, and co-produced it. He based it on The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger. Keaton used 500 Ohio National Guardsmen for the battle scene and even had them switch uniforms to give the armies more size.  Needless to say Keaton did all his own stunts and several were dangerous.



OPENING: Keaton is a Southern railroad engineer named Johnnie Gray (get it?). His co-star is his engine, the General. His train arrives in Marietta, Georgia in the spring of 1861. He goes to visit his girlfriend Annabelle (Marion Mack). Word arrives about Fort Sumter and everyone is excited. Annabelle’s father and brother rush off to enlist. “Aren’t you going to enlist?” Sealed with a kiss. Off goes Johnnie. He cuts to the head of the line, but is turned down because engineers are deferred. Only he is not told this (for plot purposes) and is crestfallen. Annabelle assumes he is a coward and breaks off their relationship.

SUMMARY: One year later, Union General Thatcher agrees to a bold plan by civilian scout/spy Anderson (Glen Cavender) to cut the rail link between Atlanta and Chattanooga by stealing a locomotive and wreaking havoc on the rail line. This will aid the Union’s assault on Chattanooga.

Johnnie is determined to get his first love back
      Anderson and his team hijack the General in Big Shanty and kidnap Annabelle in the process. Johnnie gives chase in a hand-cart and then a bike. Later he gets another train and hooks up a mortar. The movie cuts back and forth between Johnnie and Anderson. Anderson’s men cut the telegraph line, drop ties on the track, and set fire to a car - leaving it on a bridge. Nothing stops Johnnie, however. Several gags are incorporated into the chase. For instance, at one point, Johnnie chops wood and misses both the Union army and the Confederate army passing by.

      Johnnie gets trapped behind enemy lines. He sneaks into a house and hides under a table. Union officers and Anderson come in and discuss plans. Annabelle is brought in and locked in a room. Johnnie disguises himself as a Union soldier and rescues Annabelle. There is comedy gold involving a bear trap. The next morning they find themselves in the middle of the Union army. He hides Annabelle in a sack that is thrown onto the General and he then steals it back. This time Anderson is doing the chasing. It’s almost a mirror image of the original chase. Johnnie tries some of the same things Anderson did.

the spectacular train crash
       Johnnie sets fire to a bridge between enemy lines and then alerts the Rebel army which rushes off to confront the Yankees. The Yankee general sends his supply train across the bridge which results in a spectacular crash into the river. This was the most expensive stunt in filmdom up until then and the engine remained in the river until WWII.


CLOSING: There is a big battle as the Union army tries to cross the river. There is lots of cannon fire and smoke. Remarkably (or maybe not), the scene is similar to the bridge scene in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. There is some funny stuff involving a broken sword. Johnnie captures a Union general, is promoted, and gets the girl. Surprise!

RATINGS:

Acting - 7


Action - 7


Accuracy - 7


Realism – 7


Plot - 7


Overall - 7


WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? It depends on their feelings about silent movie comedies. They also need to have a sense of humor that appreciates old-school slapstick humor. The movie does have a romance, but Keaton is not exactly Brad Pitt. It certainly is not graphically bloody.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie is actually fairly accurate in depicting the famous Andrews Raid in the Civil War. James Andrews and a group of Yankee volunteers hijacked the General at Big Shanty in April, 1862. The plan was to damage the rail line and to facilitate the Union offensive against Chattanooga. The General's engineer William Allen Fuller gave chase after his engine on foot, then hand-cart, then on the locomotive Yonah and later the William R. Smith. Meanwhile, Andrews’ men were doing the damage depicted in the movie. Broken tracks forced Fuller back on foot until he acquired the Texas. Fuller had to drive the Texas backwards, but he did gain ground on the General.

       Andrews’ mission ended in failure because Fuller’s dogged pursuit did not leave him time to effectively destroy the rail line. There was some bad luck involved as well. For instance, the attempt to burn a key bridge failed because the wood was wet from a recent rain. A flaming boxcar left on the bridge was pushed off by Fuller.  Alas, there was no spectacular train wreck. Just a few miles from Chattanooga, the General ran out of fuel. Andrews and his men abandoned it and fled on foot, but they all were captured and treated as spies. Andrews and seven of the men were executed. Eight later escaped and six were exchanged. The first Medals of Honor were awarded to the Andrews Raiders.

CRITIQUE: We are told that “The General” is a masterpiece, but if you weren’t told this you might miss that fact. It strikes me as more of a curio than a masterpiece. Although it holds up much better than most silent movies, I feel modern war movie lovers will wonder what all the fuss is about. It helps to know the effort that Keaton put into it – the National Guardsmen, the train crash, the stunts, etc.  The movie is also admirably authentic in its weapons, uniforms, and equipment. You also learn how a train works which is a nice touch.

      The movie has a lack of subtitles which forces the watcher to concentrate. That is a plus to me, but a turnoff to others. The cinematography is fine. The acting is spotty. Keaton, of course, is brilliant with his stoical persona. However, the supporting cast is your typical overly emotive silent movie actors. Mack is particularly weak. Parts of the movie drag.  For instance, the second chase is tedious and recycles elements from the first chase.

      The big question is whether the movie is funny. Well, it is certainly not funny enough to be ranked the 18th funniest movie of all time. Most of the slapstick is on the silly side. There is a lot of falling down. Some of the sight gags are amazing. This includes the iconic sight of Keaton sitting on the drive shaft between the wheels as the train moves. The movie made me smile in spots, but seldom laugh. One of the funnier aspects of the film is how roughly Johnnie treats Annabelle. At least I think that was supposed to be funny. Keaton deserves credit for seamlessly blending the comedy into the narrative. The gags are not just thrown in to add humor periodically.

CONCLUSION: “The General” is another example of how the editors of Military History magazine must have meant the 100 Most Important War Movies instead of 100 Greatest. It was a great movie when it came out, but cannot be considered such now.  Also, as a war comedy, it is not in a league with Dr. Strangelove (#84)  However, all war movie lovers should see it because of its place in war movie history.

Keaton stunts!


the full movie - enjoy!

Friday, March 2, 2012

DUELING MOVIES: “The Tuskegee Airmen vs. Red Tails”




      My recent review of "Red Tails" reminded me that it was not the first attempt to bring recognition to the 99th Fighter Squadron, also known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Others have commented on which version is better so I decided to rewatch “The Tuskegee Airmen” to weigh in on this debate.


      “The Tuskegee Airmen” begins with the claim that it is “based on a true story”. The opening scene of a young African-American boy playing with a toy plane and then running after a crop duster sets the tone of clichéd sincerity. Unlike “Red Tails”, TA covers the training at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. On the way there, Hannibal (Lawrence Fishburne), Billy (Cuba Gooding), and Walter (Allen Payne) encounter Southern racism as Nazi prisoners of war are seated on the better part of the train.  This was sadly based on fact.

    
        The heterogeneous cast of fighter jocks (the hot shot, the steady hand, the pompous overachiever, the one with low self esteem, etc.) is introduced and soon we are wondering who will make it to the end of the movie. We are also introduced to the requisite racist trainer (Maj. Joy) who wears a pencil thin mustache to go with his sneer. You know, the kind of guy who if you met him on the street for the first time you would punch him in the face. He does not agree with this experiment with "nigger fliers" and does his best to sabotage it. In contrast to him is black Lt. Glynn (Courtney Vance), a veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force, who has their back. Vance is his usual smoldering ball of second-rate Denzel (see “Hamburger Hill”).

       Scratch one main character when the pompous Walter intentionally crashes and burns after washing out for buzzing the field. A training montage gets the rest of the cast through basic. A highlight is a visit by Eleanor Roosevelt who is taken for a ride by Hannibal. Meanwhile, back in Washington, the dastardly Senator Beach (John Lithgow) is attempting to disband the unit due to the physical inferiority of Negroes. They don’t specify, but I’m pretty sure he is a Southerner. Score one for Eleanor as they are posted to North Africa where they are given P-51s. They are limited to ground support missions, however. If you hate CGI, no worries. We are treated to actual gun camera footage which unfortunately usually does not match the actions of the pilots and is far from seamlessly edited in. Too bad the producers did not have actual radio chatter because what Hollywood puts in their mouths is ridiculous (but not as ridiculous as in “Red Tails”). “Take that you Nazi bastard” is typical.

       The first time they encounter German fighters, Cappy (Malcolm Jamal Warner) disobeys orders and goes charging off to his melodramatic death. This incident gives fuel to the fact-searching Sen. Beach when he visits. He recounts all the criticisms of the unit which include poor flight discipline. Later, back in Washington, he has them on the ropes when Col. Benjamin Davis (Andre Braugher) gives an impassioned speech about fairness. That shuts up that son of a Beach (sorry, but you have to admit that’s an accurate description).

      The 22nd Bombing Group is getting hammered. “Where the Hell are our escorts!” Lucky for this one incredibly unlucky bomber, the 332nd Fighter Group is posted to Ramitelli and assigned close escort duty. Sure enough, Hannibal and Billy come to the rescue of the very same bomber by shooting down two German fighters. “Give my regards to the Fuhrer”. (Top that, George Lucas! Well played, sir.) Would you believe the Texan bomber commander refuses to credit Niggers for saving his white ass?! Would you believe he later has a change of heart and demands that the 332nd escort them to Berlin? How did you know that - have you seen a movie?

       I had forgotten that this movie has the destroyer incident with Hannibal and Billy sinking a German destroyer. In this case, the movie uses gun footage of a Japanese warship. Close enough – it was an Axis ship. Good thing I looked this up and found it to be based on a true event or else I would have accused both movies of the most egregiously ridiculous plagiarism in war movie history.

      The final mission. The only bomber apparently in the 22nd Bomber Group is rescued again by the only two fighters in the 332nd. Small sky. Someone who is not Laurence Fishburne does not make it back, but does make it into the montage of the dead guys at the end. If you like to read, you can find out some heroic facts about the Tuskegee Airmen including that they never lost a bomber they escorted (actually, don’t believe that one).

        This is a good movie to watch during Black History Month. It’s hard to be harsh with it. It is sooo sincere. It gets the point across and this makes “Red Tails” treading of the same ground (but more piously) hard to stomach. I definitely think George Lucas thought we did not know about this movie. Hell, maybe he did not know about it. How do you explain the dialogue and stereotyping in “Red Tails” being worse than this $8.5 million made for TV movie? Probably because Lucas spent his money on CGI effects so video gamers would go see it.

        Its accuracy is commendable. It is similar to “Red Tails” in that respect. Both movies use composite characters, but kudos to TA for having Benjamin Davis in it. (Making RT’s exclusion of him even more perplexing.) TA does a better job on the racist obstacles the pilots had to overcome. Each has a ridiculous villain, but Major Joy is less laughable than “Pretty Boy”.

        I suggest you watch TA until they reach Ramitelli and then switch to RT. That way you will get complete coverage of the Tuskegee Airmen. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to avoid the dialogue, clichés , stereotypes, and unrealistic situations.

COMPARISONS

Acting – Tuskegee Airmen


Action - Red Tails


Accuracy – tie


Plot - TA


Realism - tie


Dialogue - TA


Dogfights - RT

Overall -  Red Tails