Sunday, April 17, 2011

Brooksfest 2011: Hope For the Best...Expect the Worst

As the temperatures improve and the days creep ever closer to summer vacation for students and teachers (7 weeks for me, but who's counting?) I thought to myself, what better time to have a laugh than now?  So here it is, this year's annual Brooksfest (my personal tribute and marathon to all things Mel Brooks) and not a moment too soon.  This week marks a three day work week with an early release on the third, and then five days off for Spring Break, so it is a perfect week for watching a lot of movies in a short amount of time.  Why a short amount of time, you ask?  Well, because on Thursday I'm going to head up to Columbus to stay with a friend while I'm off (he needs some company) and I don't think he'd appreciate a Mel Brooks marathon.  Anyway, shall we get to the films?  Yes, I think we shall.  Today I want to look into one of the first films that Mel Brooks ever made...immediately after he made The Producers, which itself was an underground hit.  This film was an adaptation of a Russian satirical novel, an ambitious project given America's feelings toward the Soviet Union at the time, and gave the audience a humorous glimpse into the lives of those in communist Russia (with heavy doses of slapstick of course).  I had never seen the film before buying the 20th Century Fox/MGM Mel Brooks collection, but after seeing it I definitely count it as one of my favorites.  So let's join in on the hunt and enjoy the hilarity that is The Twelve Chairs.

Ippolit Matveevich Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody), an impoverished aristocrat from Imperial Russia, is summoned, along with the village priest, to the deathbed of his mother in law. She reveals, before passing, that a fortune in jewels had been hidden from the Bolsheviks by being sewn into the seat cushion of one of the twelve chairs from the family's dining room set. After hearing the dying woman's Confession, the Russian Orthodox priest Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise), who has arrived to give the Last Rites, decides to abandon the Church and attempt to steal the treasure. Shortly thereafter, a homeless con-artist, Ostap Bender (Frank Langella), meets the dispossessed nobleman and manipulates his way into a partnership in his search for the family riches. Although Ostap is an unwelcome addition at first, it is mostly through his cunning, intellect and charm that the pair manages to get anywhere while keeping ahead of the apostate priest who is now their competition.  The stage is then set for a rollicking adventure that takes the trio across the entire continent as they try to find each of the separated chairs.


This is the kind of film that is easy to lose amongst Brooks' more famous and recognized comedies, particularly the spoofs, mainly because the subject matter is so unfamiliar to most moviewatchers.  The spoofs satarize aspects of films that people remember, and Chairs deals with a country and a group of people that most Americans couldn't give two figs about.  I myself wasn't all that interested in seeing a movie about twelve chairs...but once I let myself get into it, I found myself laughing out loud at many of the scenes (particularly at Dom DeLuise's lines and actions..."I NEED those CHAIRS!!!"...priceless).  Ron Moody and Frank Langella are also wonderful and match each other beautifully.  Moody is sniveling and smarmy while Langella is smooth and savvy, they are a perfect pair for comedy.  In the end, you find yourself rooting for them...despite how despicable they are.  If you've never seen The Twelve Chairs, you really should.  It is an incredibly humorous movie that deserves to be remembered much more fondly amongst Brooks' movies.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The 80s takes on The Comedy of Errors

Ok, let's do a short recap on my life before I go any further.  I successfully opened and closed this year's senior class play, Arsenic and Old Lace, with few (if any) issues.  Everyone said it was a great show and I was very proud, and I've just finished my first week of rehearsals on Seussical our spring musical...so life is pretty busy.  I'll be out of show season in 6 more weeks and will be within spitting distance of summer vacation...yess!!!  I'm also still seeing Patrick, and not feeling the usual fatigue yet.  This one might just last, if you can believe it.  So all in all, I think life is pretty good right now (but then again, ask me again in 5 weeks and we'll see if I'm still sane).  Anyway, today I got to revisit an old favorite of mine...though not one of everyone else's.  It is a contemporary take on a concept first dreamed up by the ancient Romans (though that probably means the Greeks really came up with it) and then popularized by William Shakespeare in his The Comedy of Errors.  For anyone who's studied their theater history, you realize I'm talking about the comic oppertunites afforded by a plot featuring twins...who don't realize that they themselves have a twin.  If you're following my hints and threads you'll realize I'm talking about the Lily Tomlin/Bette Midler vehicle Big Buisness.  The film was a minor blip in 1988 that received few positive critical marks, but it gets replayed on television often enough to have stuck in the minds of viewers for many decades.  If you'll oblige me, I'd like to say a little bit about this feature.

The film opens in the West Virginia wilderness in the late 40s/early 50s where a Mr. and Mrs. Shelton are searching for the summer house of some rich friends.  The Sheltons hit a snag, of course, when the missus begins to give birth.  They ask directions to a local hospital, which is only to be used by local factory employees, and upon buying the factory are able to birth their two twin daughters.  However, a local bumpkin and his wife are also there giving birth to two twin girls and, due to a nearsighted nurse, the sets of twins are mixed up (and each parent decides to name the girls Sadie and Rose).  Cut to some 30 or 40 years later and Sadie and Rose Shelton are running one of the biggest companies in Manhattan while Rose and Sadie Ratliff are still working for the factory in West Virginia.  When evil Sadie S. decides to liquidate the factory to serve her own selfish means, Rose R. takes it upon herself to head on up to New York City to "raise some Hell and kick some snooty New York ass".  Rose R. takes her sister Sadie R. with her (who has always dreamed of a city life) to Manhattan and soon each set of girls is being mistaken for the other.  Confusion and consternation is abound as the setting of the famous Plaza Hotel is exploited for many farcical shenanigans.

Big Business is the kind of movie that features amazing performances, excellent design, and wonderful comic timing that all works together as long as one is able to accept the film's major plot device...that there would be two sets of mismatched twins running around a hotel and not realizing that something strange was up.  Apparently many people can't, which is a shame, as I think we're asked to suspend disbelief for far more than that in certain films.  I myself, despite the contrivances of the plot's setup, can't help but be caught up in the whirlwind of acting choices and comic beats of Tomlin and Midler as they chew the scenery as the twins.  Each one is able to treat their respective Sadies and Roses as if she is the complete opposite of the opposing counterpart.  Their co-stars are also excellent, if less memorable, and the direction of Jim Abrahams is tight and works well to create a really diverting comedy. For me personally, this is one of my favorite comedies featuring Bette Midler and I seem to watch it every year (sometimes more than once).  Like always: if you've never seen it or if you haven't seen it in years, I suggest you find yourself a copy and turn it on.  It is perfect for a Saturday night.