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Islands In The Stream: Week Ten
by Peter Sobczynski

This will be a short-but-silly week of streaming recommendations to help pass the pandemic. Come back every day for a new selection and hopefully you will find something up your alley. If you do or you don't or you have suggestions/scathing criticisms to make, drop me a line at petersob@efilmcritic.com and I try to get to them

I have decided that my selections for this week are going to be somewhat on the sillier side and to that end, there are few films that I can think of that are sillier than "Caveman," the 1981 comedy from Carl Gottlieb (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Rudy De Luca) that might have made a name for itself as a cheerfully goofy take on the same kind of material that "Quest for Fire" had handled with great solemnity if it weren't for the fact that it came out almost a year before that one hit theaters.Set in One Zillion BC ("October 9th"), the film stars Ringo Starr as Atouk, who is the scrawniest and seemingly least capable member of his tribe, which arns him much abuse from the leaders, the fearsome Tonda (John Matuszak). To make matters worse, Atouk is not-so-secretly in lust with Lana (Barbara Bach), the tribe's most beautiful woman and, inevitably, Tonda's mate. Inevitably, Atouk runs afoul of Tonda one time too many and is banished from the tribe for good, along with his only friend, Lar (Dennis Quaid). Before long, the two come across other outcasts, most notably the lovely Tala (Shelly Long) and the doddering Gog (Jack Gilford), and they have a series of adventures in which they encounter everything from dinosaurs (including a T-Rex that ends up getting stoned in one of the loonier scenes) to a battle with an abominable snowman (played by "Night Court" favorite Richard Mol). In between their adventures, Atouk and the others end up inventing such things as fire, the wheel, syncopated music, weapons and walking erect (at least not the version that ensues after seeing Lana in her fur bikini) and they use these innovations to finally take a stand against Tonda once and for all. I don't think that Gottlieb and De Luca ever quite figured out the audience that they were aiming for with this film--the humor is a little too adult-oriented for little kids who might have gravitated to it and too juvenile to attract the older audiences that flocked to the genre parodies of Mel Brooks (with whom De Luca co-wrote "Silent Movie" (1976) and "High Anxiety" (1977)--and it is ultimately more of a collection of prehistoric-themed sketches featuring jokes almost as old than anything resembling a cohesive story. And yet, the film has an infectiously silly spirit that I have always kind of admired. Starr, the biggest name at the time, is clearly not an actor but his innate personal likability comes through enough so that you find yourself rooting for him during his misadventures. (He also lucked out since, with one exception, the film eschewed English dialogue entirely and instead utilized a series of phrases that were meant to be authentic "caveman"--if I recall correctly, the ticket takers handed out phrasebooks to people as they were going into the theater.) Likewise, the other cast members are clearly having a lot of fun as well (with Long and Gilford stealing a number of scenes), the sequences involving the stop-motion dinosaurs are actually reasonably impressive and every once in a while, there is a very funny gag--including the sight of a pterodactyl egg being transformed into an omelette and an amiably disgusting moment in which an enormous bug resting on Lar's face is squished with gooey results--to make you forget the slack moments. "Caveman" may not be a classic by even the loosest interpretation of the word and those who don't respond to its dopey wavelength are likely to find it one of the dumbest things they've ever seen and not in a good way. To these eyes, however, the film aims to do nothing more than supply audiences with 90-odd minutes of wackiness as well as conclusive proof that Ringo Starr (who met Barbara Bach on the set and married her a year later) was one of the luckiest men to ever walk the face of the earth. In both cases, it succeeded. (Cinemax. Vudu.)

Stop me if you've heard this one before. A trio of wackos--a shyster lawyer with an endless stream of insults and double entendres at the ready, a largely mute fellow whose coat harbors an astonishing array of items, and a guy with an accent who often seems to do nothing but annoy the aforementioned shyster--find themselves embroiled with a cultural institution filled with great pomp and pretension that they proceeds make a shambles of with their antics while helping the colorless romantic leads find happiness in the end. This is, of course, the vague plot outline of the 1935 Marx Brothers favorite "A Night at the Opera" but it is also serves to describe "Brain Donors," a 1992 oddity that actually took on the seemingly doomed challenge of remaking, albeit loosely, that classic. The film was actually made in 1991 under the title "Lame Ducks" with "Airplane!" co-creators David and Jerry Zucker signed on as executive producers and their longtime collaborator Pat Proft penning the screenplay (though "Opera" writers George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind do get a "suggested" credit), which presumably made Paramount Pictures comfortable enough to fund such an odd project after their success with "The Naked Gun" a couple of years earlier. Alas, when the Zuckers abruptly left the studio just before it was supposed to come out, the studio delayed the release for several months and gave it its new title at the last second (so last second that the Claymation opening credits still includes a duck that is never referred to again) before dumping it in theaters where it was ignored by critics and audiences alike before quickly being pulled from distribution and forgotten. Considering all of this (not to mention the fact that the barely feature-length 79-minute run time suggests that there may have been trouble in the editing room) and the fact that it is pretty obscure today, one might rightly assume that the resulting film was a foolhardy mess at best and a total disaster at worst. However, in the most improbable twist of fate for a singularly improbable film, "Brain Donors," though not remotely in the same ballpark as "A Night at the Opera," is actually pretty funny in its own right. Much of this is due to the truly heroic performance by John Turturro, who, less than a year after his acclaimed work in the title role in "Barton Fink," went to wild extremes as the eminent (in his own mind) Roland T. Flakfizer. Rather than try to put a new spin on the frankly Grouchoesque lines that he has been given, he instead just leans into it with a performance that contains just enough hints of the old Marx flair to make the inspired one-liners hit ("Flakfizer doesn't know the meaning of the word "no." We're also a little fuzzy on "panaglutin" and "viscosity."") and convince you that the less-impressive ones are funnier than they actually are. Although Turturro is the clear focus of the film, he and co-stars Bob Nelson (as the Harpo equivalent), Mel Smith (who does a British version of Chico, though he thankfully is not allowed any piano solos) and Nancy Marchand (who steps into Margaret Dumont's shoes and I'll let you fill in the punchline there) do build up a genuine head of comedic steam and the climax, in which the guys run roughshod at a ballet performance, is also quite funny (though, I suppose, not quite as funny as the ballet sequence in "Top Secret.") Besides, how can you resist a movie where a character announces that he wants to present ballet for the blind--"We'll give the dancers wooden ballet shoes"? (iTunes. Amazon Prime. Vudu.)

Throughout the 1980s, Chevy Chase made a lot of movies and I don't think that I am necessarily telling tales out of school when I suggest that perhaps some of his efforts were not all that great, as anyone who actually paid money to see "Under the Rainbow" (1981) in a theater can attest. Unfortunately, what would arguably prove to be the best film that he made during this era--at the very least, the best not named "Fletch" (1985)--is one that continues to be somewhat overlooked to this day. That would be "Funny Farm" (1988), a wryly intelligent and very funny film that, save for maybe a couple of jokes here and there, could have easily been produced during the Thirties, when smart screwball comedies were the norm and not the exception to the rule. Chase plays Andy Farmer, a New York sportswriter who, along with wife Elizabeth (Madolyn Smith), decides to ditch the big city and buy a farm in the Vermont countryside whose peace and quiet, he believes, will provide him with the inspiration to finally knuckle down and write the Great American Novel. Alas, what promises to be a bucolic rural paradise turns into a never-ending nightmare for the Farmers--the house contains any number of nasty and expensive surprises that were somehow overlooked in the sales brochure, the townspeople are all nutty to one degree or another and, to make things worse, the peace and quiet is not especially beneficial to Andy's writing. To make matters worse, while he struggles to complete his dud of a book, Elizabeth pens a children's book on the sly that she ends up selling. On the surface, the premise of "Funny Farm" does not sound that much different from the stuff that Chase was doing at the time but it only takes a few minutes of watching to realize that this is a far more sophisticated work than he had ever really done up to that point in his career (or afterwards, for that matter). The difference can mostly be attributed to the presence of George Roy Hill, the director behind such acclaimed entertainments as "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969), "The Sting" (1973), "Slap Shot" (1976) and "The World According to Garp" (1982). Although there is a certain amount of slapstick on display as well as a couple of amusingly gross gags, Hill was clearly trying to avoid the knockabout gags and overt mugging that had marked a lot of Chase's screen appearances over the years. Instead, he brings a sense of elegance and wit to the proceedings that will put some viewers in the mind of the comedy classics that Preston Sturges churned out during his amazing run of films more than four decades earlier, especially in regards to the sparkling dialogue and amusing cast of supporting characters (who all really get a chance to shine in the final section when Andy literally bribes them all to act normal so that he can sell the farm to some suckers and get the hell out for good). The film also features Chase in top form and suggests the kind of screen comedian that he might have developed into had he been a little more selective in his choice of material. Alas, the distributors must have panicked when they saw the film and released it with an ad campaign that made it look like just another "Vacation" sequel. (One of the posters even had him literally standing with egg on his face.) Unfortunately, this kept away audiences who might have wanted to see a comedy not aimed exclusively at teenagers and when the people who did want to see such a thing realized that it was completely different from what the ads suggested, word of mouth got around quick and the film was not long for theaters. (Of course, coming out the same day as "Big" probably didn't help.) Afterwards, Hill retired from filmmaking, Chase chose to eschew more ambitious material to go back to the dumb stuff and the film landed on cable, where it did eventually get discovered by viewers who probably wondered why they had never heard of it before. More fun than a plate of lamb fries, "Funny Farm" is a genuinely inspired comedy that will leave even the most devout curmudgeons reeling with laughter. (Cinemax. iTunes. Amazon Prime. Vudu.)

After his appearance as Caesar Enrico 'Rico' Bandello in "Little Caesar" in 1931, Edward G. Robinson was instantly typecast as a tough guy and essentially became the basic prototype for virtually every screen gangster to follow in his wake. In 1933, he tried to spoof on his established screen persona with "The Little Giant" but it did not quite jell together in a satisfying matter. A few years later, he decided to go the self-parody route again and the result was "A Slight Case of Murder" (1938), a droll gangster goof that might not go down as one of Robinson's greatest films but which still holds up reasonably well today. As the film opens, Prohibition has just ended and bootlegger Remy Marko (Robinson) has decided to make his clandestine beer business into a legitimate operation as a way of making a fortune with a completely legal business. The problem, as we quickly learn, is that Remy's brew is terrible, even by the standards of American beer, and while that might not have mattered much at a time when people would pay through the nose for anything that even vaguely resembled the stuff, they will no longer tolerate such swill when they don’t have to do so. Unfortunately, no one has the heart to tell Remy that his beer sucks and he therefore cannot understand why it is selling so poorly. When his bank calls in his loan, he decides to invite the bankers to his summer home in Saratoga in the hopes of convincing them to give him an extension. "Are there complications?," you might ask. Of course. The comparatively minor one is his discovery that the fiancee of his beloved daughter Mary is a state trooper eager to prove himself. The bigger one comes when Remy, his family and his associates arrive at the summer house and discover the corpses of four former enemies in an upstairs room. With the party for the bankers looming, Remy's gang tries to dump the bodies but circumstances cause them to bring the stiffs back to the house where they now have to hide them again from the bankers, the fiancée and all the other guests. Based on a play co-written by Damon Runyon, the story is occasionally too frantic and complicated for its own good--it plays at times like "Animal Crackers" (1930) with a higher body count--and you can sort of understand why it was not a big hit on the stage. What makes it work, of course, is Robinson's inspired performance as Marko, which gives the proceedings a center that it most likely would not have had if virtually any other actor had played the part. He shows crack comic timing throughout that helps to sell even the most contrived aspects of the screenplay but at the same time, his presence adds just enough gravitas to the proceedings so that you can actually think that Marko is a genuine gangster and not just a big joke. Audiences and critics both loved his willingness to poke fun at himself and the film was not only a big hit but also inspired other crime comedy vehicles for Robinson to star in, such as "Brother Orchid" (1940) and "Larceny Inc" (1942). Those movies have their moments, to be sure, but "A Slight Case of Murder" remains the best of the bunch, a comedy that is infinitely smoother, frothier and easier to swallow than any beer brewed by Remy Marko. (Turner Classic Movies)


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originally posted: 05/26/20 23:16:34
last updated: 05/30/20 02:53:57
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