Sunday, September 18, 2016
Ever since I can remember, I always wanted to be a National Film Registry reviewer...
And now I finally get all those jokes in Animaniacs and a dozen other 90's cartoons that decided to spoof this very much R-rated film that hopefully none of the children watching had seen. Parental bonus... what really separates memorable cartoons, at least if it's done well. This is a movie I hadn't seen, even though I've seen a couple of other Scorsese movies (at least enough to understand what Honest Film Trailers Epic Voice Guy was talking about when he listed off the “Scorsesisms” in The Wolf of Wall Street,). But hey, when you're really good at directing pictures about slimeball criminals in New York, work with it. It was even fun watching Ray Liotta in the role that Leonardo DiCaprio would have had if he hadn't been 15 when shooting started. So every kid who grew up in the 90's is familiar with some level of the plot through cultural osmosis, though I don't know too many people who have actually seen the movie. It's the life of Henry Hill, a guy who always wanted to be a gangster, becomes one, enjoys it, but then there's the inevitable downfall and betrayal, with one of his closest associates (Joe Pesci as Joe Pesci) being a half-cocked maniac who is ready to kill at the slightest provocation, his own ever-growing problem with drugs, and the apparent allergy Scorsese leading men have to monogamy leading to a volatile marriage with a lot of screaming, throwing things, and death threats. And lots and lots of cussing.
Which isn't to say it isn't a masterful crime movie. It is. Some of the shots alone are some of the best I've seen. It's just pretty easy to see where either Scorsese really likes these stories or figures “Hey, what works, works”. What surprised me is that the narrator and apparent lead, Henry Hill, is generally a non-entity in his own story. Almost everything is happening to or around him, but he isn't really a person who is making things happen. He isn't a guy making much in the way of decisions or calling shots – he's really reactionary. The only thing he does decide to do is to keep selling drugs and get a few other people in on it. Which is an interesting thread to follow. The book the movie was based on was based on a bunch of interviews with this guy who did sell out his mobster friends to get into Witness Protection (and was later thrown out for doing drugs). Was he downplaying his own role in events to make it seem like he was more of a bystander than he was to make himself seem more sympathetic to audiences? Or did Scorsese make him more of a bystander to make him more of a schnook? I can't say authoritatively, since I've never read the book, but now I'd like to, so I could answer this question.
Overall, I'd say give it a watch if you enjoy crime and gangster movies, which I do. I have a preference for the classic ones, where there isn't a ton of cussing and domestic violence (which there definitely is in Goodfellas), but the cinematography alone is dazzling.
Friday, September 16, 2016
Instead of a monster, I present the National Film Registry to you as a sophisticated, debonair man-about-town. Maybe.
What is it about Gene Wilder? This may seem like I'm trying to capitalize on his death, but there really is something about his ability to switch between gentle sorrowing and manic shrieking. I am amazed he never burst a blood vessel on screen – he certainly looked like he would a few times. And in Young Frankenstein, this ability is really turned up to 11. The black-and-white cinematography doesn't show off just how extraordinarily red his face could get, but it did show off how well he had mastered the early silent film-style of acting heavily with eyes, eyebrows, and twitches of the mouth, only to move into the classic early talkie mode of howling like a maniac. He really does seem like he could be descended from the Henry Frankenstein of all the early monster pictures... though in a slight continuity error between the book and the films, Frederick's grandfather is named Victor. Which is correct for the books, but in all the Universal pictures, he's named Henry. It's a minor inconsistency as such things go, especially because even though they don't have the old, abandoned mill that's in the original Frankenstein pictures, they do have the lab equipment. I've always found Mel Brooks very hit or miss, but Young Frankenstein is a hit for me because it's more absurdist comedy and less situational. It does have the famous “Walk this way” joke (which, interestingly, sprang from a Looney Tunes short), and a lot of Marty Feldman looking directly into the camera, but Eye-gor is the only character who appears to know that he is in a movie.
Maybe that's what bothers me about some other Mel Brooks movies. I don't know. This one is particularly full of running gags and rants, as well as a ton of references to the source material (“What else shall we throw in?” asks the little girl, making the Creature roll his eyes – film buffs may remember that the Creature in the Universal picture became distressed when there were no more flowers to toss in the water, and then threw in the little girl, who of course drowned. Or the hermit who offers cigars, which I thought was a silly gag the first time I saw the picture, but since I've seen The Bride of Frankenstein, I know really is a nod to the source. And I still wonder why on earth the hermit had cigars). More modern audiences may be rather offended at the scene between Elizabeth and the Creature, where her objections to the fact that the Creature has kidnapped her are overcome by her seeing his... schwangstugel. Though how exactly that transferred over is never really explained, and let me be the first to say I am really happy it was not. This is a film that shows off the comic genius of Gene Wilder and the proper way to reference source material in a parody (hint to all aspiring parody filmmakers of today: the fact that a thing exists does not mean that it is funny. You actually have to play up the absurdity of the existence of the thing).
It can be crude at times, but it does deserve to be on the National Film Registry for its attention to detail and loving craftsmanship of parody – not just because apparently having “Frankenstein” in the title guarantees a spot on the List.