Mel Brooks

Frasier (1993) s01e12 – Miracle on Third or Fourth Street

It’s a Christmas episode and a good one. Just the right amount of humor and heartwarming, with Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) ending up alone on Christmas and in need of some good fellowship as it turns out.

Everything seems to be going swimmingly for Grammer’s first Christmas with Mahoney in Seattle, with his son coming in to visit him. They’re going to the Crane family Christmas at the cabin, where Maris will shoot at bears with her shotgun, which gets David Hyde Pierce a good laugh. Only the son cancels—no cameo from Bebe Neuwirth when she calls, unfortunately—leading Grammer to lash out at Mahoney, which dampens the holiday spirit.

So instead of family time, Grammer works the radio, unknowingly dragging Peri Gilpin in, away from her visiting mother. Grammer’s already gotten Gilpin a crappy Christmas gift, so when she gets too upset listening to the miserable Christmas callers, he sends her home. The image of Grammer alone in the sound booth, the voice of lonely Christmas, is rather affecting. James Burrows does an excellent job directing Grammer this episode.

Because it’s basically an all-Grammer “Frasier.” Once the family stuff is out of the way—including a great Hyde Pierce’s Daphne moment (sadly, Hyde Pierce’s adorable perving is usually separate from Leeves’s performance) and a major cringe transphobic joke—it’s just Grammer and the callers.

There are bunch of celebrity guests—Mel Brooks, Rosemary Clooney, Dominick Dunne, Ben Stiller, and Eric Stoltz—each with one story more devastating than the last. Writer Christopher Lloyd finds a great mix of humor and misery in the calls. They’re tragic but also funny in how tragic.

And then there’s the layered “Frasier” pay-off when Grammer goes out to dinner at the only place he can find open (where he doesn’t need a reservation), a greasy spoon run by Christine Estabrook. Grammer sits next to sleeping John Finn, who turns out to have been the subject of one of Grammer’s Christmas calls.

Great performance from Finn.

Then cool bit part from Hawthorne James.

See, Finn and James are experiencing homelessness but when it turns out snob on the sly Grammer might be in need of goodwill toward men… well, there’s a nice wholesome Christmas miracle.

And then a great punchline.

Exactly what a Christmas episode should be.

Minus the transphobic joke.

The Critic (1963, Ernest Pintoff)

At just about three minutes of “action,” The Critic is the perfect length. It opens with some abstract animation–black shapes dancing around variously colored backgrounds, as active (versus tranquil) classical music plays. The designs get more complex, but for the first thirty seconds (so fifteen percent of the action), Critic plays it straight. It’s some abstract animation short. Not too complicated, but lively.

And then Mel Brooks asks, “What the hell is this?”

And The Critic starts on its path to sublimity.

For a while, it’s just Brooks talking about the action on screen. Dot moving over here, dot moving over there. Some shapes getting jiggy.

Brooks’s character is a cranky, impatient old Russian guy and we’re hearing his thoughts. It’s perfectly fine. Brooks is funny, it’s not going to go on very long, it’s all good.

Only we’re not hearing his thoughts. Or, more, we are hearing his thoughts. But so are all the other people watching the short film with him.

He’s in a theater, talking out loud. That detail gives The Critic the extra oomph it needs and pushes it up and over. It’s awesome.

Brooks ad-libbed the whole thing too. Apparently, the filmmakers didn’t even show him the short before he recorded.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Ernest Pintoff; written by Mel Brooks; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Mel Brooks.


Blazing Saddles (1974, Mel Brooks)

Maybe the first two-thirds of Blazing Saddles are really funny, getting great performances out of lead Cleavon Little, his sidekick Gene Wilder and especially Harvey Korman’s villain. Wilder’s almost an add-on character; he’s around so Little, in addition to being funny and likable, doesn’t also have to be an accomplished gunslinger. It’s one of the most pragmatic elements of the screenplay, which has five credited contributors, and is otherwise all over the place.

Director Brooks splits Saddles out into sketches. Here’s a sketch with Little and underutilized proto-sidekick Charles McGregor, here’s a sketch with Slim Pickens and Korman, here’s a sketch with Brooks starring as the moron governor (Korman’s his suffering Judas attorney general), here’s one with Korman and Madeline Kahn, here’s one with Kahn and Little. The racist townsfolk–who get saddled, no pun intended, with black sheriff Little–have their own series of sketches. Brooks brings it all together somewhat well–the constant fade outs are more curtain lowering than transition–until the film hits the halfway point. Once Kahn and Little have their sketch, Saddles just starts racing to its conclusion.

And that conclusion is a madcap mess of Panavision and Technicolor. There’s no intelligence in the absurdity, except when Korman is around (Little is reduced to a bit player in his own movie for most of the conclusion). Korman gets Saddles’s best material, knows it and appreciates it. He delivers in every scene. Everyone else tries, but the material isn’t always there.

The script relies on caricatures–funny ones, sure, but still caricatures–instead of giving the actors anything to work with. Hence my describing it as a series of sketches. Burton Gilliam, for example, gets some solid material at the beginning, but then he just loiters around. McGregor follows a similar pattern–stronger material at the start, then he disappears only to return as a gear in the deus ex machina. One of the dei ex machina, the film’s got a couple, the second one pointless.

Brooks keeps it moving–Saddles runs under ninety minutes–but the last thirty or so are just spinning its wheels. Nice photography from Joseph F. Biroc and some rather funny songs for establishing montages (and Kahn’s number) help things along.

Saddles has all the pieces to be more than a madcap comedy, Brooks just doesn’t utilize them.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Brooks; screenplay by Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor and Alan Uger, based on a story by Bergman; director of photography, Joseph F. Biroc; edited by Danford B. Greene and John C. Howard; music by John Morris; production designer, Peter Wooley; produced by Michael Hertzberg; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Cleavon Little (Bart), Gene Wilder (Jim), Harvey Korman (Hedley Lamarr), Madeline Kahn (Lili Von Shtupp), Slim Pickens (Taggart), Charles McGregor (Charlie), Burton Gilliam (Lyle), Alex Karras (Mongo), Mel Brooks (Governor William J. Lepetomane).


The Muppet Movie (1979, James Frawley)

The Muppet Movie takes it upon itself to be all things… well, two things. It has to be appealing to kids and adults. The film is split roughly in half between the audiences, with the adults having more to appreciate in the star cameos–some cute, some hilarious (Steve Martin in short shorts)–and terrible puns and the kids have the songs.

To keep the kids amused during the more “adult” parts, there are the Muppets. The level of puppetry on display here is staggering, particularly once one realizes only a couple of the Muppets have moving eyes. The others just give the impression of moving, lifelike eyes through head tilts and reaction motion. Jim Henson and the Muppet performers show a masterful understanding of how the slightest motion implies real animation.

But the adults also have to be kept amused during the song sequences, which is a little harder, even though the Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher songs are great. There’s occasional humor, but there’s also amazing filmmaking. Director Frawley does a great job, as does Isidore Mankofsky’s photography and Christopher Greenbury’s editing. The Muppet Movie‘s beautifully made… and they know it.

The script frequently breaks the fourth wall, including references to how great some of the previous shots came out. The only bad shot is during Dom DeLuise’s cameo, like his close-ups had to be reshot.

The film’s idealistic and infectious. If you can believe the Muppets are real… you can believe in the film’s positive, inspiring message.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by James Frawley; written by Jack Burns and Jerry Juhl; director of photography, Isidore Mankofsky; edited by Christopher Greenbury; music by Paul Williams; production designer, Joel Schiller; produced by Jim Henson; released by Associated Film Distribution.

Starring Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt and Dave Goelz as the Muppets and Caroll Spinney (Big Bird).

Starring Charles Durning (Doc Hopper), Austin Pendleton (Max), Dom DeLuise (Bernie the Agent), Mel Brooks (Professor Max Krassman), Orson Welles (Lew Lord), Carol Kane (Myth) and Steve Martin (an insolent waiter).


Young Frankenstein (1974, Mel Brooks)

Young Frankenstein does not feel like a Mel Brooks film. It’s so startlingly well-directed, one could almost believe he didn’t direct it himself. Brooks, for the film, has this way of keeping the camera mostly stationary and letting his actors and the sets do all the work–one can’t forget Gerald Hirschfeld’s amazing cinematography either.

Brooks–and Wilder, who co-wrote and runs wild with the film in the lead–have a sizable accomplishment here.

Wilder’s performance–and Brooks puts him in these insanely tight close-ups with an unwavering shot–is unbelievably good. Probably his best performance. He does so well alone, but also so perfectly with everyone else (Teri Garr, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn). It’s almost unfortunate when Young Frankenstein has to get moving with its plot, because it means it’s going to end.

Kahn’s got some hilarious moments in an extrovert role, while Garr’s a lot quieter but just as good. Garr might give the best straight acting performance. Feldman’s got maybe the flashiest role; Brooks’s tight direction keeps him from taking over the film, making sure it’s him, Garr and Wilder.

As the Monster, Peter Boyle does a fine job. It’s an almost entirely physical performance, but his facial expressions–even exaggerated–are ideal. It’s impossible to think of anyone else in the role.

Same goes for Gene Hackman’s cameo. It’s incredibly small, but it’s one of Hackman’s most memorable performances.

Reiterating, the only thing wrong with Young Frankenstein is it eventually has to end.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Brooks; screenplay by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, based on their story and a novel by Mary Shelley; director of photography, Gerald Hirschfeld; edited by John C. Howard; music by John Morris; production designer, Dale Hennesy; produced by Michael Gruskoff; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gene Wilder (Dr. Frankenstein), Peter Boyle (The Monster), Marty Feldman (Igor), Cloris Leachman (Frau Blücher), Teri Garr (Inga), Madeline Kahn (Elizabeth), Gene Hackman (Blindman), Kenneth Mars (Inspector Kemp), Richard Haydn (Herr Falkstein), Liam Dunn (Mr. Hilltop) and Danny Goldman (Medical Student).


Spaceballs (1987, Mel Brooks)

It’s kind of amazing how much of Spaceballs is actually funny–pretty much everything with Rick Moranis and Mel Brooks as the Spaceballs president–given how everything with Bill Pullman and Daphne Zuniga falls flat. It doesn’t even fall… it’s a zero degree plane. Some of it has to do with the writing of that portion–Brooks and his co-writers aren’t particularly interested in the good guys because they aren’t funny (the jokes are cheap and substandard and Brooks tries to give it a narrative–and romantic tension–instead of playing against narrative for laughs, like the Moranis parts). But it’s not all poor writing–Pullman’s terrible and Zuniga’s worse, giving one of the abysmal performances in a Hollywood studio film from the 1980s.

There aren’t any good performances on the good guy side–John Candy’s probably the best, if only by comparison (he’s not good by any means and his character is unfunny) and Joan Rivers’s vocal work as the robot is obnoxious. It doesn’t help it’s obvious the robot is frequently a dummy. Brooks as the Yoda stand-in isn’t funny and the only amusing parts of his sequence (besides the Wizard of Oz reference, which is good) is trying to place the actors playing the Dinks (the Jawas). The less said about Dick Van Patten, the better.

The bad guys are all great, from Brooks as the dumb president (though it’s hard not to think he’s doing a Harvey Korman impression), George Wyner and then there’s Moranis. Moranis does something real strange in the movie, especially given the Pullman, Zuniga and Candy sequences. He acts and he acts very well.

The rest–the jokes about marketing–is hit and miss, but the real problem is Brooks tries to tie a narrative to the movie instead of just playing for laughs. It makes Spaceballs rely on Pullman and Zuniga, so it really can’t do anything but fail.

And… I really do think George Lucas ripped off the good planet’s costume designs for Episode I.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Mel Brooks; written by Brooks, Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham; director of photography, Nick McLean; edited by Conrad Buff IV; music by John Morris; production designed by Terence Marsh; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Mel Brooks (President Skroob / Yoghurt), Rick Moranis (Dark Helmet), Bill Pullman (Lone Starr), Daphne Zuniga (Princess Vespa), John Candy (Barf), George Wyner (Colonel Sandurz), Joan Rivers as the voice of Dot Matrix, Dick Van Patten (King Roland) and Michael Winslow (Radar Technician).


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