A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: April, 2013

“What! No Beer?” (1933)

"What! No Beer?" poster


1933’s What! No Beer? is a comedy based on Prohibition, an incident that many feel was a farce in its own right. The banishment of liquor contributed to the rise of bootlegging gangsters, whose exploits were recounted in many a Warner Bros. melodrama. But What! No Beer? instead focuses on the little guy, the go-getting opportunist unafraid of bending the law if a quick buck is involved. Still, even with a pair of vintage funnyman all-stars as its headliners, the flick barely summons enough pep to putter along, its potential for rowdiness boundless but any genuine momentum virtually nonexistent.

America has spoken, and it wants its booze back. State by state, voters are gathering en masse to repeal Prohibition, and some enterprising chaps can’t wait to cash in. Jimmy Potts (Jimmy Durante) is one such self-starter, so convinced that his fortune lies with buying a brewery and selling suds himself that he ropes his pal Elmer Butts (Buster Keaton) into investing his own life savings. Intent on wooing a gun moll (Phyillis Barry), Elmer agrees to the scheme, which doesn’t go off without its share of hiccups. For one, Prohibition hasn’t quite ended yet, so the cops force the boys to peddle their brew on the hush-hush. But when they inadvertenly muscle in on two local mobsters’ turf, Elmer and Jimmy must think fast in order to save their business, as well as their skins.

Normally, this is where I’d stubbornly insist that What! No Beer? hasn’t a thing on Buster Keaton’s incredible silent work, but the picture sort of undersells all of its comedic talent. Truthfully, this isn’t even really Buster’s show; he got top billing, but it’s Durante who mugs and Ha-cha-cha!s his way into our hearts most. The roles they play aren’t exactly out of character (Durante as the smiling scoundrel, Keaton as the lovestruck klutz), but What! No Beer? basically gives them jack-all to do. Jimmy and Elmer start a brewery, there’s a few pratfalls…and that’s it. Is there any visual novelty to the slapstick? No. Are the one-liners fast and funny? Not very. It’s borderline criminal to imagine all this combined skill (including Keaton’s The Cameraman director, Edward Sedgwick) having brainstormed this much dead air.

It’s not even the silent cinema snob in me that found What! No Beer? tapped out for yuks. I’ve enjoyed Keaton’s MGM sound films before, including his prior pairing with Durante, Speak Easily. Plus, I can’t say it’s either actor’s fault, since they both play to their strengths as well as they can, given the material. Durante’s mischievous grin makes him a perfect fit for what a rascal Jimmy turns out to be, and Keaton is, as ever, an oblivious innocent who just wants a nice gal. Their chemistry makes the movie hard to hate outright, but it still has a threadbare script that allows for few crackerjack jokes and even less rollicking set pieces. An amusingly-executed raid on Jimmy and Elmer’s factory at the end is too little, too late when stacked against the hackneyed antics that dominate most of the previous screen time.

What! No Beer? has its smiles, but it’s a low point for Keaton, the last straw from a studio that stifled much of what made him so dynamic. Buster left MGM after this and jumped into his Educational shorts, which were fun but still denied him the freedom that make his breakout films amazing to behold to this day. If you look back on What! No Beer? fondly, great for you, but I don’t think I’m alone in having spent a lot of it shaking the proverbial glass for one last droplet of laughter.

“Ruby Sparks” (2012)

"Ruby Sparks" poster


I have a bone to pick with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. If you’re not familiar with what’s come to be a most despised cinematic trope, just imagine Elizabethtown, Larry Crowne, or any film featuring a free-spirited woman whose lone mission in life is to turn the sadsack male lead’s frown upside down. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl has nothing better to do than be adorable for her fella, with the films themselves often leaving out the checkered past that would lead to this extreme emotional attachment in reality. Few movies actually address the work it’d take to be in a relationship with someone this quirk-laden, and Ruby Sparks is wise enough to be one of them. Though not an entirely successful vilification of the MPDG, it’s a smart, funny, and surprisingly rough picture that’s aware of the dangers of idealizing a romantic interest without accepting the flaws that are inevitably part of the package.

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is suffering from the sophomore slump. His debut novel made him a best-selling writer at age 19, and the decade since that has been spent trying to come up with a second act. But after years of staring at his typewriter in anxiety, inspiration at last strikes Calvin, and he begins cranking out a manuscript based on an imaginary girl (Zoe Kazan) who’s been dominating his thoughts. Christened “Ruby Sparks,” this dream gal is a talented artist, an amazing cook, a fantastic lover…and, as Calvin is gob-smacked to discover one morning, a flesh-and-blood person who’s materialized in his house. But despite this reality-shattering event, Calvin proceeds with his newfound relationship, a seemingly picture-perfect romance that starts to sour when his insecurities and the temptation to “weak” Ruby’s persona creep in.

I can’t tell you the relief it was to see that Ruby Sparks wasn’t another shallow wish fulfillment fantasy. I’ve had my fill of White Guys with Problems, whose companions inexplicably put up with their crap and only amount to tools without an ounce of heart or humanity in them. For one thing, it helps that Ruby Sparks was written by the eponymous lass herself, Zoe Kazan, who imbues her script with a vital sense of balance. Just as Ruby isn’t a one-woman quirk machine with no grounding in real life, the film isn’t quick to demonize Calvin for allowing his fears to get the best of him and make changes to Ruby when it looks as if she may drift away. The film treats them as a genuine couple, and the calamities they encounter are the kind that emerge in any relationship where one partner isn’t as emotionally mature as the other is. Ruby Sparks is understanding, but it’s unafraid to note how problematic it is to fall in love with the image of the perfect girlfriend without taking her own baggage into account or pulling your own weight.

Ruby Sparks is a complicated film indeed, though it’s well up to the challenge of being an unflinching character study, while appearing to be a lovey-dovey romcom on the surface. Dano and Kazan are an actual offscreen pair, and they bring with them years of experience with heartaches and high times. Their chemistry is legit, leaving you believing in the friction their personalities cause as much as you buy them being lost in another’s company. Dano’s sensitive performance makes it clear that Calvin’s neuroses come from a valid place, and Kazan is an absolute charmer, turning Ruby into a vibrant soul who can easily love and be loved in return. The two especially hold their own against the experienced supporting actors (including Elliott Gould, Antonio Banderas, and Annette Bening), who turn in what are mostly extended cameos. If the film does have one glaring issue, it’s the resolution, which will please the optimists in the house but is a dramatic departure from the brave and rather dark direction it takes heading into the last act.

Ruby Sparks can be easily misread as twee and cutesy, but fear not. There’s a soul here, so when it tries connecting with a vulnerable place, the resulting sting is earned rather than feeling forced or manipulative. Ruby Sparks goes to show that fantasies are a nice place to visit but are no substitute for good old, gloriously-flawed humanity.

“Zotz!” (1962)

"Zotz!" poster


William Castle fans know the drill. The filmmaker/showman/schlock merchant comes out, introduces his latest movie, and explains a new gimmick that we don’t really indulge in but enjoy anyway. But with Zotz!, there is no prep time. A brief conversation with the Columbia Pictures torch-bearer is all we get before Castle plunges us into…well, with a title as cryptic as Zotz!, it’s kind of impossible to anticipate what’s coming. But even with the most pared-down of expectations, this comedic fantasy is still incredibly limp and lame, its only virtue being its overall inoffensiveness.

Jonathan Jones (Tom Poston) is the epitome of what the 1960s thought all intellectuals were like: sober, celibate, and socially clueless. He leads a life of little excitement, until his niece (Zeme North) receives an ancient coin from an admirer. Jones transcribes some writing on the strange old artifact, which in turn endows him with mystical powers. With a saying of the word “Zotz!” and a point of his finger, Jones can make others double over in pain, slow time down to a crawl, and even cause things to explode. This is too much craziness for one mild-mannered professor to handle, but throw in some Russian spies who want the coin for themselves, and Jones will need to hurry if he wants to master his abilities and save the day.

Zotz! reminds me of those old Disney comedies like Snowball Express and The Gnome-mobile, completely shallow fluff whose existence is so baffling, either Uncle Walt had money to burn or lost one doozy of a bet. It’s hard to imagine for whom a movie like this was made, because even by the sanitized standards of the early ’60s, this thing is mega-tame. You could call it a family flick, although there’s no edge to pull in parents, and I can’t picture kids sitting still for Jones’ efforts to get a promotion. Zotz! is a comedy without humor and a fantasy without awe. It’s so eager to ruffle no feathers, it never develops an identity other than being “nice,” only “nice” doesn’t always translate into solid characters or amusing situations from which we want them to escape.

I wouldn’t call Zotz! one of Castle’s gimmick-based movies (at least not in the way that The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill required theaters to install stuff), but it still claims a pretty weak hook. The extent of Jones’s magic powers essentially entail either running the film in slo-mo or setting off firecrackers, and that this guy is so slow to grasp the simplicity of his capabilities is a source of endless frustration. The climax is particularly aggravating, mainly because Jones is too stupid to realize that saying “Zotz!” at the right times is all it’d take to save his loved ones from dem Commies. The gags are just painful, and as likable as Post is, he’s not a compelling enough lead to provide an effective salve.

There’s no real value — kitsch or otherwise — in watching Zotz! I hate to beat up on an innocent goofball of a flick, but when irony goggles can’t make your movie more entertaining, you’re really sunk. William Castle made a lot of silly movies I’d gladly watch again, but Zotz! is 85 minutes of straight-up dumb.

“Kentucky Kernels” (1934)

"Kentucky Kernels" poster


There are few greater cinematic crapshoots than popping in a vintage comedy. I’ve seen Abbott and Costello flicks that are absolute gems, and I’ve seen ones that are like pulling teeth. Buster Keaton is a genre legend, but some of his sound era shorts are awful and embarrassing. But I haven’t met the schtick yet that I wouldn’t sit through at least once, which is where 1934’s Kentucky Kernels comes in. My pal Brian Saur recently clued me into the existence of Wheeler & Woolsey, a team of funnymen I’d actually never heard of before. Kentucky Kernels came recommended as a good introduction to their weird world of madcap antics and whatnot, and having now seen it, I can report that its appealingly cornball gags and one-liners will have you groaning out loud in a good way.

Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey play Willie and Elmer, two vaudeville magicians who’ve fallen on the hardest of times. With no demand for their act anymore, the guys try their hand at the fishing trade, where the next hour and fifteen minutes’ worth of shenanigans begins to snowball. Through a series of complicated events, Willie and Elmer end up in charge of Spanky Milford (Spanky McFarland, of Our Gang fame), a chubby little orphan with an uncanny talent for vandalism. As it turns out, Spanky is the heir to a sprawling Kentucky plantation, to which Willie and Elmer are glad to accompany him (and mooch off of, naturally). But the boys may not live to enjoy their riches, for the neighboring Wakefield family is locked in a feud against the Milfords, and a bespectacled blowhard and his wimpy sidekick aren’t about to put an end to their bloodlust anytime soon.

Kentucky Kernels came in the middle of a brief but rather busy film career for Wheeler & Woolsey, consisting of over twenty features and shorts from 1929 to 1937. Like their characters here, the pair started out on the stage, bringing with them now-classic archetypes: Wheeler as the well-meaning innocent, and Woolsey as the fast-talking, cigar-chomping shyster who regularly led them to trouble. With an act like that, you won’t have any difficulty figuring out how Kentucky Kernels will play out, but that doesn’t mean the movie is without any pluck, energy, or (most importantly) good jokes. The flick has a wonderful, carefree attitude about itself, not so much that it wholly abandons the notion of a plot but enough so that nothing’s taken that seriously. Kentucky Kernels is easygoing but on target, frivolous fun that doesn’t let the story’s busywork drown out its leads the way many Abbott and Costello outings unfortunately did.

Though there’s not much of a narrative in the first place, Kentucky Kernels has remarkably few moments where it feels hung up on having to play out a skit to kill time. Wheeler & Woolsey make fast work of supplying zinger after zinger (“If I hear one more word about your mother…” “You leave my mother out of this!” “That suits me!”); though they’re at each others’ throats, you’re always assured that they’ll be buddies at the end of the day. Not all of the humor works (Willie Best’s servant is cringingly dated), but chuckles come steady more often than, most surprisingly from pint-sized hellraiser Spanky, who’s never without a hammer or rock summoned from thin air. The finale is a veritable flood of chaos, in which Willie and Elmer get caught in the middle of a Milford/Wakefield shootout (by which Spanky couldn’t be more entertained).

There’s not much room for farces like Kentucky Kernels in today’s comedic cinema, which is mostly ruled by frat boys and bros who think cursing up a storm is all the routine they need. It’s not a genre watermark by any means, but its timing is terrific, and the rapport between its headliners is great fun to watch. Kentucky Kernels left me with a doofy smile, and when I delve into the Wheeler/Woolsey wheelhouse at a future date, getting it to reappear will be a piece of cake.

“The Girl” (2012)

"The Girl" poster


If last fall’s Hitchcock handled the mythic director with kid gloves, then The Girl gives him a ruthless beating. In any case, neither film is as complex as they’d like to be, although the latter has the benefit of being closer to “the truth.” Beneath the darkly jolly image that Alfred Hitchcock projected in the media was the soul of what could be a very cold taskmaster, one with an obsessiveness driving him to push his actors to exhausting lengths if it meant getting a great shot. The Girl aims to explore this aspect of Hitch’s personality and, especially, how he viewed his leading ladies, though it eventually becomes less of a shocking character study and more of a simplistic rundown of sleazy stuff he may or may not have done.

It’s the early 1960s, and Alfred Hitchcock (Toby Jones) is on top of the world. His Psycho gamble paid off handsomely, further cementing his status as the cinema’s true Master of Suspense. Hitchcock’s sure that he’s found his next hit in a little project called The Birds, but rather than cast a big-name starlet in the main role, he turns to lovely model Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) to fill it instead. Initially, Hedren finds herself overwhelmed by this big break, eager to make a good impression and learn from the patron saint of thrillers. But as filming begins, Tippi becomes wise to Hitchcock’s fascination with her, which soon takes the form of sexual advances. Tippi rejects him, but as she comes to learn, Hitch has taken great pains to ensure that she’s been left with nowhere to run.

I’m not opposed to a movie like The Girl, over which several of Hitchcock’s admirers have gotten up in arms. I love the man’s pictures, but I’m also aware of his tendency to demand the most out of his performers and cast them off to the side just as quickly. Just how deeply this treatment ran is a subject well worth exploring, but The Girl doesn’t really do anything interesting with it. While it’s not the cheap and lurid tabloid show I feared it would be, its focus isn’t trained on Hitchcock’s psychology as much as it is on casting him as the biggest lech in the world. The Girl is very much on Tippi Hedren’s side, being based on her accounts of him coming onto her and kneecapping her career after turning him down. Whether or not this truly happened is one thing, but a premise hinged on such an enigmatic figure doing horrible things to a woman just because does not a gripping narrative make.

The Girl wants you to feel uncomfortable, which it accomplishes and then some, but just recounting the misery through which Hitchcock put Hedren is its only asset. We see her fight back, refuse to play victim, and be told that she’s not the first actress this has happened to, but in the end, the whole thing is awfully shallow. The very few moments we see the events from Hitchcock’s perspective seem to be making excuses for his actions instead of helping us understand where they come from, and while the real-life Hedren said that she learned much from working with the man, all you glean from this story is that he was a creep, and that’s that. The script’s lightweight treatment of such heavy subject matter does a disservice to how otherwise fantastic the performances are; Jones’s Hitchcock is absolutely uncanny, Miller’s Hedren is effectively wounded, and though her lack of screen time is criminal, Imelda Staunton is low-key and heartbreaking as Hitch’s wife, Alma.

The Girl features some top-notch acting, but an inescapable cloud of “That’s it?” looms well beyond the ending credits. While more willing than the mostly light-hearted Hitchcock to acknowledge the director’s dark side, there’s little substance around to balance out the movie’s bitter tone. The Girl is blunt, uncompromising, and not any damn good.

“A Slight Case of Murder” (1938)

"A Slight Case of Murder" poster


Tough guys can make for the most unexpected comedians. Now I’m not talking about when an action star emasculates himself by pairing up with kids (The Rock, Vin Diesel, Jackie Chan — I’m looking at all of you). I’m thinking of the skill with which classic silver screen thug James Cagney played Bottom in 1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or how Mark Wahlberg found his true calling as a master of deadpan delivery. No stranger to tommy guns and racketeering himself, Edward G. Robinson made his bid for laughs with 1938’s A Slight Case of Murder and made out like a bandit (no pun intended). It’s as sharp and consistently funny as any of that era’s comedy greats, a farce made for the stage that’s been perfectly crafted to take off on film.

We begin as Prohibition comes to an end, taking with it a life of crime for bootlegger Remy Marko (Robinson). The gangster is bound to make an honest man of himself and parlay his ill-gotten gains into a legitimate brewery…which is hard when your product is the nastiest stuff this side of Billy Beer. Within a few years, Marko is just about sunk, inspiring him to rethink his game plan at his summer home — where every form of shenanigans under the sun chooses to erupt. Marko has his hands full as it is, with his daughter (Jane Bryan) getting engaged to a cop and hosting a troublesome orphan, but unbeknownst to him, some former associates have holed up at his joint following a big stick-up. His home now encroached upon by in-laws and crooks alike, Marko needs some quick thinking and a lot of bluster to cool all the craziness and go legit for good.

A Slight Case of Murder began as a Broadway show, and if its character roster of Damon Runyonesque wiseguys sounds familiar, then you won’t be surprised to learn that Mr. Guys and Dolls himself helped write it. Just about every mob-based caricature is out in full force, not to mention the same variety of snowballing hijinks that slamming door comedies have relied upon for eons. But what’s sort of remarkable about A Slight Case of Murder is how it doesn’t feel stagebound, how cleverly it sidesteps having the actors recite their lines on a single set and with the bare minimum of camera movement. Director Lloyd Bacon (42nd Street) never confines the action to wherever Robinson’s at, covering his events from all angles and showing us just how well he’s keeping the plot’s various plates spinning. Corpses, drunken guests, and that slingshot-wielding orphan hit all the right cues, bringing with them hearty laughs and suspense over how Marko will sweet-talk his way out of this fine mess.

Bacon turned what could have easily been an overcrowded mess into a well-oiled comedy of errors, although A Slight Case of Murder still wouldn’t work as well without its note-perfect cast. Every actor plays the right shade of broad, goofy as hell but just short of feeling like they’re projecting for an audience that’s not there. Robinson easily owns the place, playing one of film’s most endearing, well-intentioned blowhards. You sympathize with Remy’s efforts to go straight, you understand when his frustrations tempt him to switch back, and despite his every boast and bad decision, you know the dude’s wily enough to make out alright. The supporting cast is equally as on the ball, with character actors like Edward Brophy and Allen Jenkins filling the ranks of Marko’s entourage, as well as a terrific turn from Ruth Donnelly as Marko’s prim wife, who hasn’t completely forgotten her gun moll days.

Plain and simple, A Slight Case of Murder is a real treat. Age may have made the plot’s turns and gags easier to spot coming, but the tone of the humor is so dead-on and conveyed with such enthusiasm by the cast, letting the laughs carry you away is a breeze. A Slight Case of Murder is too fun to pass up, a comedy whose freshness will no doubt dwarf whatever monstrosity Friedberg and Seltzer are plotting to crap out next.