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Showing posts from February, 2020

I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason you folks shouldn’t go out in the lobby until this is over.

The Marx Brothers  Worst to Best
Thirteen features over twenty years, the general consensus is that Paramount = the Marx Brothers’ golden era, before drifting into gradual decline after back-to-back hits on moving to MGM. That’s at least partly true, but… read on.

Leave it open, we'll get free fumigation.

Parasite (2019)
(SPOILERS) I had the ending of Parasite spoiled for me before seeing the film – it was difficult to avoid, given the time that has passed since its US release. Albeit, more in terms of the manner in which violence suddenly erupts than the specifics of who perpetrates it. Some of these mentions alluded to it coming out of nowhere, and thus being tonally inconsistent with the picture. It’s a view I can’t really get on board with, except in so much as there’s nothing so graphic hitherto. Otherwise, though, there’s an air of foreboding and dread running through at least the latter half of the film, however leavened it as points by Bong Joon-ho’s satirical swipes.

Nice porthole, though. Very nautical.

Bait (2019)
(SPOILERS) Deserving winner of the BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer – well, despite it not being Mark Jenkin’s debut feature, that is – Bait’s originality comes less from its storyline, the very recognisable subject matter of impoverished locals’ charged relationship with the affluent class descending on their Cornish fishing village, buying their properties and pints but failing to put anything of substance into the community, than the way in which Jenkin approaches the material, shooting on 16mm with a Bolex, with all the handmade imperfections that entails. Added to which, he has no compunction in experimenting in the edit, sometimes to mesmerising effect.

Oh no, I’m not going to follow you and get shot. If I was half-shot, I’d follow you

Love Happy  (1949)
(SPOILERS) And so the Marx Brothers’ (collective) screen career ends with a decrepit whimper. It’s very obvious that Love Happy was initially developed as solo project for Harpo – he falls in love! – since he gets the lion’s share of the scenes. More surprising is that Groucho wasn’t in fact a late-stage addition; he provides the narration, but only really intrudes on the proceedings at the very end. And Chico? He mentions tootsie-frutsie ice cream.

This food doesn’t look any more poisoned than any other hotel food.

A Night in Casablanca (1946)
(SPOILERS) After a run of films of waning quality – and a five-year gap – the Marx Brothers delivered a very pleasant surprise with this remarkably respectable bounce back, so good, it can happily be mentioned in the same breath as their first two MGM pictures. True, this isn’t on a par with the unbridled anarchy we saw in the Paramount pictures, but there are enough proficient set pieces and sustained routines to confirm A Night in Casablanca’s status as seriously underrated.

Shall we bind the deal with a kiss? Or, five dollars in cash? You lose either way.

The Big Store (1941)
(SPOILERS) Three go mad in a department store. The results are undoubtedly more diverting than low point Go West, but it feels as if there is even more flotsam to wade through to get to the good stuff in The Big Store, which is almost exclusively delivered by Groucho as private detective and bodyguard Wolf J Flywheel. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the climax is one of the better ones, an extended chase sequence through the store that is frequently quite inventive.

Time wounds all heels.

Go West (1940)
(SPOILERS) Comedy westerns were nothing new when the Marx Brothers succumbed – Buster Keaton had made one with the same title fifteen years earlier – but theirs served to underline how variable the results could be. For every Bob Hope (Son of Paleface) there’s a Seth McFarlane (A Million Ways to Die in the West). In theory, the brothers riding roughshod over such genre conventions ought to have been uproarious, but they’d rather run out of gas by this point, and the results are, for the most part, sadly pedestrian. Even Go West's big train-chase climax fails to elicit the once accustomed anarchy that was their stock in trade.

Goodbye, Mr Chimps.

At the Circus (1939)
(SPOILERS) This is where the brothers sink into their stretch of middling MGM movies, now absent the presence of their major supporter Irving Thalberg; it’s probably for the best this wasn’t called A Day at the Circus, as it would instantly have drawn unflattering comparisons with the earlier MGM pair that gave them their biggest hits. Nevertheless, there’s enough decent material to keep At the Circus fairly sprightly (rather than “fairly ponderous”, as Pauline Kael put it).

This better not be some 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea shit, man.

Underwater (2020)
(SPOILERS) There’s no shame in a quality B-movie, or in an Alien rip-off done well. But it’s nevertheless going to need that something extra to make it truly memorable in its own right. Underwater, despite being scuppered at the box office, is an entirely respectable entry in both those arenas from director William Eubank, but like the recent Life (which, in fairness, had an ending that very nearly elevated it to the truly memorable), it can’t quite go that extra mile, or summon that much needed sliver of inspiration to set it apart.

I still think it’s a terrible play, but it makes a wonderful rehearsal.

Room Service (1938)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers step away from MGM for a solitary RKO outing, and a scarcely disguised adaption of a play to boot. Room Service lacks the requisite sense of anarchy and inventiveness of their better (earlier) pictures – even Groucho’s name, Gordon Miller, is disappointingly everyday – but it’s nevertheless an inoffensive time passer.

The last time I saw a head like that was in a bottle of formaldehyde.

A Day at the Races (1937)
(SPOILERS) Very much of a piece with its predecessor, right down to the title, A Day at the Races lacks the highs of A Night at the Opera (there’s nothing here to compare to the State Room sequence), but it’s probably more even overall. Certainly, while it’s fifteen minutes longer (and there are about twenty minutes of music), overall it has a better sense of flow, and just the fact of Groucho’s false pretences (Dr Hugo Z Hackenbush, a horse doctor posing as the human kind) gives it a certain distinction.

On account of you, I nearly heard the opera.

A Night at the Opera (1935)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers head over to MGM, minus one Zeppo, and despite their variably citing A Night at the Opera as their best film, you can see – well, perhaps not instantly, but by about the half-hour mark – that something was undoubtedly lost along the way. It isn’t that there’s an absence of very funny material – there’s a strong contender for their best scene in the mix – but that there’s a lot else too. Added to which, the best of the very funny material can be found during the first half of the picture.

Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour – which is probably more than she ever did.

Duck Soup (1933)
(SPOILERS) Not for nothing is Duck Soup acclaimed as one of the greatest comedies ever, and while you’d never hold it against Marx Brothers movies for having little in the way of coherent plotting in – indeed, it’s pretty much essential to their approach – the presence of actual thematic content this time helps sharpen the edges of both their slapstick and their satire.

You’re a disgrace to the family name of Wagstaff, if such a thing is possible.

Horse Feathers (1932)
(SPOILERS) After a scenario that seemed feasible in Monkey Business – the brothers as stowaways – Horse Feathers opts for a massive stretch. Somehow, Groucho (Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff) has been appointed as the president of Huxley University, proceeding to offer the trustees and assembled throng a few suggestions on how he’ll run things (by way of anarchistic creed “Whatever it is, I’m against it”). There’s a reasonably coherent mission statement in this one, however, at least until inevitably it devolves into gleeful incoherence.

Afraid, me? A man who’s licked his weight in wild caterpillars? You bet I’m afraid.

Monkey Business (1931)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers’ first feature possessed of a wholly original screenplay, Monkey Business is almost brazenly dismissive towards notions of coherence, just as long as it loosely supports their trademark antics. And it does so in spades, depositing them as stowaways bound for America who fall in with a couple of mutually antagonistic racketeers/ gangsters while attempting to avoid being cast in irons. There’s no Margaret Dumont this time out, but Groucho is more than matched by flirtation-interest Thelma Todd.

You killed my sandwich!

Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
(SPOILERS) One has to wonder at Bird of Prey’s 79% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I mean, such things are to be taken with a pinch of salt at the best of times, but it would be easy, given the disparity between such evident approval and the actually quality of the movie, to suspect insincere motives on the part of critics, that they’re actually responding to its nominally progressive credentials – female protagonists in a superhero flick! – rather than its content. Which I’m quite sure couldn’t possibly be the case. Birds of Prey (and the Fanatabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t very good. The trailers did not lie, even if the positive reviews might have misled you into thinking they were misleading.

Bad luck to kill a seabird.

The Lighthouse (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Eggers’ acclaimed – and Oscar-nominated – second feature is, in some respects, a similar beast to his previous The Witch, whereby isolated individuals of bygone eras are subjected to the unsparing attentions of nature. In his scheme of things, nature becomes an active, embodied force, one that has no respect for the line between imaginings and reality and which proceeds to test its targets’ sanity by means of both elements and elementals. All helped along by unhealthy doses of superstition. But where The Witch sustained itself, and the gradual unravelling of the family unit led to a germane climax, The Lighthouse becomes, well, rather silly.

We three would make an ideal couple. Why, you've got beauty, charm, money! You have got money, haven't you? Because if you haven't, we can quit right now.

Animal Crackers  (1930)
(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers’ second feature, and like The Cocoanuts, adapted from their stage musical. Like its predecessor, Animal Crackers very much wears its origins, unadorned, on its sleeve, but that barely matters when the japes, wit and reigning anarchy are as unfettered and firing on all cylinders as they are here.

This hotel not only has running water, it has running guests.

The Cocoanuts (1929)
The first Marx Brothers movie proper – Humour Risk appears to be forever lost – and an adaptation of their 1925 Broadway musical, with music and lyrics by no less than Irving Berlin. The Cocoanuts is serviced with a fairly no-frills approach by directors Robert Florey and Joseph Santley (their only work with the brothers: “One of them didn’t understand English and the other didn’t understand comedy” quipped Groucho). Groucho, Harpo and Chico arrive on the big screen fully formed, as does Margaret Dumont’s Mrs Potter (Groucho would no doubt make a gag there), while Zeppo’s Jamison is as shapeless as ever (I’m being unkind, actually; in other films, he’s actually quite a welcome presence).

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood… Ain’t that the truth.

Oscar Winners 2020
The Best Picture upset (most had it as a serious contender, but a long shot as a winner due to the dual nomination with Best International Feature and that one being in the bag) can only be a good thing for the ceremony, a further strike against predictability (whether or not it was a response to Green Book and the ongoing campaigning over representation among nominees). While some are grumbling about dual Best Picture category wins, anyone familiar with the BAFTAs is more than used to that sort of thing. Most of the rest of the biggies, director aside (although, not unexpected), were widely expected, so it also means that, in an era where the race is scrutinised to death, that it hasn’t exhausted itself long before the ceremony.

What is this, the sequel to The Notebook?

Men in Black: International (2019)
(SPOILERS) The failure, both critically and commercially, of Sony’s limpid attempt to reignite (soft reboot) the Men in Black franchise has confirmed how desperate they are, scrabbling about for anything that might turn their fortunes around but without a scintilla of the inspiration or acumen to achieve it. They’re now on their second attempt with Ghostbusters, resuscitating Bad Boys – perhaps surprisingly, a big hit – and not making as much hay with their one smartly reinvented property (Jumanji) as they should have. And yes, they have their Spider-verse, but having all their eggs in one basket led to the downfall of the Amy Pascal regime. Despite the sad fate that befell Men in Black: International, though – the once mooted 21 Jump Street mashup would surely have been more in line with the tone of the original – it’s actually a fairly agreeable, if determinedly unremarkable movie.

Infernal hipsters with their irony.

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)
(SPOILERS) For the majority of The Dead Don’t Die, you’re not only nursing the feeling that Jim Jarmusch has no interest in making a conventional horror movie, or even a conventional zomcom – it would have been a surprise if he did – but any kind of horror movie, so disengaged is he with such elements as pace, threat, momentum or escalation. As such, when he detonates the proceedings with a megaton meta device, it isn’t so much a smart and witty move as a simple relief, confirmation that, if it felt like he couldn’t be bothered, it’s because he really couldn’t.

It’s not a letter if it doesn’t have postage, right?

Klaus (2019)
(SPOILERS) I guess Netflix’s negligible quality control, movie-wise, has to score a positive occasionally, and this Christmas – but fairly loosely so, ironically, in that the trappings are in scant supply for the most part – animation is an unlikely delight. A Santa Clause origins tale doesn’t sound like the stuff of a great movie – origins stories so rarely are – but Sergio Pablos’ feature debut Klaus is stylistically distinct, emotionally compelling, and frequently very funny.

It's a simple story that I complicated.

I Lost My Body (J’ai perdu mon corps) (2019)
(SPOILERS) A real oddity, so nice to see it garnering Oscar attention, this animation from Jérémy Clapin might sound, on first brush with the premise, like the ghoulish offspring of Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn and Oliver Stone “classic” The Hand. I Lost My Body concerns a severed appendage attempting to reunite with its owner, but really, it’s a low-key affair, one part fever dream of the hand’s eventful journeying, the other the tale of Naoufel (Hakim Faris, but Dev Patel in the dubbed version, which I didn’t watch), a pizza delivery boy who takes up carpentry in an attempt to get close to librarian Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois).

The people we don’t want here are leaving! Force them to stay!

Missing Link (2019)
(SPOILERS) Laika’s mixed animation fortunes continue, to the extent that it’s difficult to see how they’re going to be able to sustain themselves for much longer. Kubo and the Two Strings was their best feature (closely followed by Coraline), but entirely failed to justify its budget at the box office. Now Missing Link arrives, at a significantly more expensive $100m estimate, and completely flops (a paltry $26m worldwide). The reason? It isn’t a bad movie – certainly more appealing than either ParaNorman or The Boxtrolls, both of which fared much better – so perhaps there’s an aesthetic issue above and beyond their favoured stop-motion medium. It isn’t for nothing that Pixar’s designs are of a ruthlessly audience-friendly ilk.

These potatoes could be my last.

The Personal History of David Copperfield  (2019)
(SPOILERS) To go by Mark Kermode’s Twitter rant a few weeks back, anyone who doesn’t see eye to eye with him on Armando Iannucci’s decision to adopt a “colour-blind” approach in casting his David Copperfield adaptation is a closet racist (or a not-so-closet one). Actually, no. They’re “whingebagging closet-racist asshats” (guaranteed to get the Twitterati upvotes, that one). Now, some of those objecting to Iannucci’s approach may well fit that description, but Kermode’s stance is as excessive as slapping five stars on what is, at best, a fitfully enjoyable adaptation of Dickens’ favourite of his novels.

I kind of hope Al gets it.

Prediction  2020 Oscars
So many of this year’s Oscar winners seem a sure thing – certainly in the major categories – that I was in two minds whether to offer any predictions. But there’s always chance of a wild card with the Best Picture these days, given the preferential voting system, even if it does seem that 1917 has that one sewn up; it’s far from my favourite, but it does represent a nice, safe “what-do-you-expect-from-the-Oscars-anyway?” pick. I wasn’t blown away by any of the year’s nominees, with the caveat that I haven’t had a chance to see Parasite yet (and sacrilegious as it may be, I’m not totally sold on Bong Joon-ho’s oeuvre, so while it seems to be most “discerning” viewers’ choice, it will still have to convince me it’s worthy of the hype).

I made a crazy risk, a gamble, and it’s about to pay off.

Uncut Gems (2019)
(SPOILERS) Time for another ADD-addled exercise in nihilism from the Safdie brothers. Only this time, it’s anchored not so much by a head-turning as an in-your-face, yelling, kicking, screaming, fully-committed, fully-caffeinated, dazzling but utterly exhausting performance from Adam Sandler. Uncut Gems has received many plaudits, and those for Sandler are entirely deserved – it’s a highly convincing piece of acting, one that ought to have merited an Oscar nod – but the film as a whole merely reconfirmed my takeaway from the also-acclaimed Good Time; that the Safdies’ sensibility, if you can call it that, since it suggests something with some degree of restraint or sensitivity, is probably not for me.

Clovis, it don't do no good runnin' from a tornado.

The Sugarland Express (1974)
(SPOILERS) The Sugarland Express is caught between two stools: the kind of movie Steven Spielberg wanted to make, one that was informed by his sensibilities, and the kind of movie his “New Hollywood” peer group were turning out. In some respect, you might see it as an attempt to replicate the human drama of George Lucas’ American Graffiti from the previous year, but that picture had nostalgia on its side. All Spielberg really had was Goldie Hawn.

You can't gunfight a man sitting on your ass.

Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971)
(SPOILERS) I don’t think I had it clear in my head which of the Support Your Local… films was which, as after (possibly) thirty years, they tend to blend into one. If pushed to say which was better, I’d have probably gone for the one with “Swifty” Morgan, where Garner trips the horseback cowboys up with the rope. The former character being from this film, the latter sequence from Support Your Local Sheriff. As it turns out, Support Your Local Gunfighter is the inferior movie in most respects, although kudos to it for the name Swifty Morgan, which is a keeper.

Get your finger out of the end of my gun!

Support Your Local Sheriff (1969)
(SPOILERS) James Garner was, of course, no stranger to the western, having made his name in Maverick, which if not actually spoofing the genre, coasted along with easy-going comedic undertones. The actor’s greatest claims to fame would be on the small screen, but between his heyday bookends of that show and The Rockford Files, he delivered several memorable movie roles; he’s likely best known for the Scrounger in The Great Escape, but coming in second was this super-relaxed, super-confident Jason McCullogh in Support Your Local Sheriff.