Saturday, January 13, 2018

#2,486. Better Watch Out (2016)

Directed By: Chris Peckover

Starring: Olivia DeJonge, Levi Miller, Ed Oxenbould

Tag line: "You Might Be Home But You're Not Alone"

Trivia: Director Chris Peckover tried to obtain the rights to the Wham! song "Last Christmas", but singer George Michael didn't want it associated with such a "dark" movie

Ah. Christmas… the best time of the year! 

Carolers… decorations… good will towards your fellow man… etc., etc. 

All that stuff is great, but the real reason I love the season is it gives me a chance to watch a slew of Holiday-themed movies and TV specials, and like most film fans my definition of what constitutes a “Christmas Movie” is a bit broad, so a number of different genres make up my December viewing schedule. 

First up are some of my childhood favorites (Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and the criminally underappreciated ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), followed by a few different versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (My favorite is the 1984 TV movie with George C. Scott, but I also enjoy Rich Little’s Christmas Carol, an HBO special I first caught in the early ‘80s; as well as the hilarious Blackadder’s Christmas Carol). 

After that, anything goes: Action (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon); Comedy (the beloved A Christmas Story, Elf, Bad Santa, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation); Fantasy (Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, The Nightmare Before Christmas), and, of course, horror. 

Now, there are plenty of entertaining holiday fright films to choose from, including Gremlins, Saint Nick, P2, A Christmas Horror Story and even the incredibly flawed Don’t Open Till Christmas. But to be honest, only two horror movies have been regular fixtures on my yearly Holiday schedule: the original Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night

Well, I’m happy to report I now have a third film to add to the mix: director Chris Peckover’s Better Watch Out. From this point forward, it just won’t feel like Christmas without it! 

For a while now, pre-teen Lucas Lerner (Levi Miller) has had a crush on Ashley (Olivia DeJonge), his 17-year-old babysitter, and with his parents (Virginia Madsen and Patrick Warburton) heading out to a Christmas party that evening, Lucas intends to to turn on the charm and finally land the girl of his dreams. His best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenhould) remains skeptical; along with being 5 years older than Lucas, Ashley also has a boyfriend, Ricky (Aleks Mikic), and what’s more, she’s heading off to college in a few days’ time. But Lucas believes his plan is foolproof, and the moment he’s alone with Ashley he begins to make his move... 

But a frightening turn of events temporarily thwarts Lucas’s amorous advances, and before long he and Ashley find themselves hiding from a mysterious intruder. Will the two manage to outwit the invader, or is there more to this terrifying situation than meets the eye? 

There’s much more to Better Watch Out, actually; a major twist just before the halfway point takes the story in a very different direction. Under normal circumstances, a shift like the one that occurs in this movie is difficult to pull off, but thanks to the film’s excellent young cast, we buy it hook, line, and sinker, and are more than a little anxious to see how everything plays out. Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenhould, both of whom co-starred in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, deliver strong performances. DeJonge’s Ashley is no pushover, and proves time and again that she can take care of herself, unlike Oxenhould’s Garrett, who does whatever his best friend tells him to do (even when he knows it’s wrong). 

The true standout, however, is Levi Miller, who shows incredible range in the role of the precocious Lucas, a 12-year-old who is intelligent for his age, yet not nearly as mature as he thinks (he is equal parts sinister and childish, often shifting from one to the other within the same scene). Madsen and Warburton also do a fine job in their brief appearances as Lucas’s parents, but it’s the youngsters that make Better Watch Out such a noteworthy horror film. 

Throw in some effective situational comedy, a remarkably clever script (even when you think you’ve seen it all, the movie finds a way to surprise you), and a handful of grisly scenes (the worst of which, a nod to John Hughes’s Home Alone, makes us squirm even without the gore), and you have the makings of a Holiday horror classic. 

And that’s exactly what Better Watch Out is destined to become.

Monday, January 8, 2018

#2,485. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Directed By: Terry Gilliam

Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Tobey Maguire

Tag line: "Four Days, Three nights, Two Convertibles, One City"

Trivia: Benicio Del Toro gained forty pounds for his role as Dr. Gonzo

I want it to be seen as one of the great movies of all time, and one of the most hated movies of all time”. This is what director Terry Gilliam said while promoting 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and based on the reactions of critics and audiences alike, I’d say he got his wish! 

While a few pundits undoubtedly enjoyed the film (Empire Magazine went so far as to rank it 469th on their list of the 500 Greatest Movies Ever), some reviews were positively scathing. Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, gave Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas one out of four stars, and called it “a horrible mess of a movie”, while Mike Clark of USA Today declared it “simply unwatchable”. There were audience members who agreed with the critics; a co-worker at the time told me it was the worst film he’d ever seen, and the only movie he ever walked out on. 

Without a doubt, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is unusual and, at times, even off-putting, but Gilliam throws enough at us to keep us engaged, building suspense as we wonder what sort of mischief his depraved leads will get into next. 

Based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson and inspired by his own experiences, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is set in the early 1970s and features the exploits of journalist Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego, played by Johnny Depp), who, along with his Samoan lawyer Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) and a trunkful of illegal narcotics, heads to Las Vegas to cover the Mint 400, a dirt bike race that lasts for several days. 

But truth be told, Duke doesn’t give a damn about the race, and instead spends his time in Vegas ingesting cocaine, acid, ether, mescaline, and a human adrenal gland! Along the way, Duke and Dr. Gonzo encounter a variety of people, including a hippie hitch-hiker (Toby Maguire), a teenage artist (Christine Ricci), and a pretty blonde reporter (Cameron Diaz). They even crash a DA’s convention, sitting in on attorney L. Ron Bumquist’s (Michael Jeter) impassioned speech on how best to spot a drug addict. 

Haunted by everything from hallucinations to paranoia, Duke experiences all that Vegas has to offer, wondering the entire time whether or not he’ll make it out of the city alive. 

With Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Terry Gilliam established himself early on as a master of the bizarre, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas went a long way to strengthen that reputation. In what is one of my favorite sequences, Duke and Dr. Gonzo – having just arrived in Vegas - are checking into the hotel. As they approach the front desk, Duke, who is already hopped up on drugs, begins to hallucinate; the face of the desk clerk, played by Katherine Helmond, morphs before his eyes, and the tacky patterns on the lobby rug leap off the floor and climb the walls. The horror continues when Duke and Gonzo make their way to the bar; shortly after they walk in, every patron transforms into a hideous reptile. This is but one of many strange scenes scattered throughout the film (a visit to the Bazooka Circus Casino is a definite highlight), with Gilliam constantly turning and tilting his camera, keeping us off-kilter as we experience first-hand his main characters’ warped view of reality. 

Depp and Del Toro are perfectly twisted as the two leads; the distorted manner in which they move while under the influence is often quite hilarious (At one point, Del Toro’s Dr. Gonzo slowly leans backwards, continuing to walk until he finally falls over). In addition, the film contains a number of memorable cameos. Aside from Maguire, Ricci, and Diaz, Ellen Barkin appears briefly as a waitress threatened by Dr. Gonzo, while Gary Busey portrays what is arguably the oddest highway patrolman in cinematic history. 

It’s easy to see why people might have a strong negative reaction to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Its structure is chaotic, and it doesn’t so much tell a story as present the experiences of two individuals who show us time and again that they aren’t exactly pillars of the community (a scene in which Depp talks about prostituting Ricci’s teenage character catches us off-guard, though I’m sure that was the point). 

Still, despite its more aggressive elements, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an effective critique of ‘70s excess, and even though I’ve seen the movie a few times now, I still get a kick out of it.

Monday, January 1, 2018

#2,484. Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974)

Directed By: John Hough

Starring: Peter Fonda, Susan George, Adam Roarke

Tagline: "They don't call them that for nothing"

Trivia: Selected by Quentin Tarantino for the First Quentin Tarantino Film Fest in Austin, Texas, 1996

In the summer of 1974, my family took a trip to the San Francisco area to visit my Aunt and Uncle. I was a few months shy of my 5th birthday, yet I remember, quite vividly, accompanying my father and uncle to a small convenience store one sunny afternoon, during which we passed a billboard advertising the movie Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (part of the reason this stuck with me over the years was that my uncle read the title aloud, and made a comment about how pretty Susan George was). 

A few weeks later, after we returned home, I was reminded of this incident when, while sitting in our living room, an ad for this same film popped up on television. 

Wow”, I thought at the time, “Dirty Mary Crazy Larry must be the most amazing movie ever made!” 

Still, despite these early experiences with its advertising campaign, today was the first time I’d actually seen Dirty Mary Crazy Larry in its entirety, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with my pre-five-year-old self that it was “the most amazing movie”, its dynamic car chases coupled with a handful of interesting performances made for a very entertaining watch. 

In need of some quick cash to overhaul their new vehicle, race car driver Larry (Peter Fonda) and his mechanic Deke (Adam Rourke) pull off a major heist, stealing thousands of dollars from a neighborhood supermarket. Alas, the pair’s getaway doesn’t go as smoothly as they hoped. First, Larry’s one-night stand, the attractive but ornery Mary (George), tracks him down - none too happy that he left without saying goodbye – and insists on tagging along with the two thieves. On top of that, Sheriff Everett Franklin (Vic Morrow) is hot on their trail, determined to bring all three of the fugitives to justice. 

But with a couple of souped-up cars at their disposal, as well as a detailed escape plan, Larry and Deke are confident that, even with their unwanted passenger, they’ll have no problem staying one step ahead of the law. 

Neither Fonda nor George is at the top of their game in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. Fonda is too laid-back to be believable as a speed-crazy crook, and George (whose American accent occasionally slips) goes way over-the-top early on. But despite their mediocre performances, the two have undeniable screen chemistry, and we root like hell for them to get away with the loot. Faring slightly better is co-star Adam Rourke as the well-prepared sidekick trying to work through a few problems of his own; and the always reliable Vic Morrow is excellent as the cop who refuses to give up (ironically, Morrow spends a good portion of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry flying around in a helicopter, the very thing that would take his life a decade or so later on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie). 

Also solid in supporting roles are Kenneth Tobey as the uptight Chief of Police (his run-ins with Morrow’s Sheriff Franklin, who isn’t nearly as straight-laced, bring an added layer of tension to the proceedings) as well as the uncredited Roddy McDowell, who has a brief but memorable appearance as the supermarket manager forced to turn a great deal money over to Larry and Deke. 

That said, the real stars of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry are its high-energy chases. Director John Hough got a bit creative when shooting some of these sequences, many featuring stunts that look plenty dangerous (in one scene, Larry, while trying to outrun the police, swerves into oncoming traffic, causing a pair of buses heading directly for him to scatter. Shot from inside Larry’s car, we see that one of the buses actually sideswipes his vehicle before careening off the road). Hough managed to generate tons of excitement with the film’s high-speed pursuits, a few of which clearly inspired key moments in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, his entry in 2007’s Grindhouse (the final chase in that movie is surprisingly similar to a scene in this one). 

So even though it took me 40+ years to get around to watching it, I’m happy to report that Dirty Mary Crazy Larry was well worth the wait!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

#2,483. The Hitcher (1986)

Directed By: Robert Harmon

Starring: Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Tag line: "He came from hell. Don't ask him where he wants to go"

Trivia: C. Thomas Howell admitted that he was actually afraid of Rutger Hauer on and off the set because of the actor's general intensity

From the time I started driving, people have been telling me it’s dangerous to pick up hitchhikers. But they don’t have anything to worry about, because thanks to director Robert Harmon’s 1986 horror / thriller The Hitcher, there’s no way in hell I’ll ever give a stranger a lift! 

Hired to deliver a car to a customer in San Diego, Chicago native Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) begins to fall asleep at the wheel while driving through the desert one evening. Hoping that a little company will help him stay awake, he picks up a hitchhiker named John Ryder (Rutger Hauer). But instead of engaging in small talk, Ryder pulls a knife on Jim and threatens to kill him. To Jim’s surprise, his new passenger is a homicidal maniac, wanted by the police for a series of murders he committed along this stretch of highway. And by the looks of it, he intends to make poor Jim his next victim. 

Luckily, Jim manages to get the drop on Ryder and pushes him out of the car. But the next morning, just when he thinks he’s safe, Jim is horrified to discover that Ryder has hitched a ride with a young family. Jim does what he can to warn them of the danger, but to no avail; Ryder murders the family, then initiates a game of cat and mouse with Jim, who, try as he might, can’t get away from the maniacal killer. 

As the bodies continue to pile up around him, Jim goes to the police, only to find that he himself has become the prime suspect in the killings! Now hunted by both Ryder and the authorities, Jim eventually teams up with Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a waitress he met at a roadside diner and the only person who believes he’s innocent. Nash has promised to help Jim escape, but the question is: can Jim protect Nash from the sadistic Ryder? 

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite plot devices was that of the innocent man accused of a crime he didn’t commit (it was a theme the great director would return to time and again, in movies like The 39 Steps, Saboteur, and North By Northwest, just to name a few). Yet I’m fairly certain that even the Master of Suspense would be shocked by what happens to Jim Halsey over the course of The Hitcher. Whenever Ryder commits a new murder, he somehow manages to make it look like Jim is the killer. With its lead character simultaneously trying to outwit both a psychopath and the police, The Hitcher generates plenty of tension throughout. 

C. Thomas Howell delivers a solid performance as the everyman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, yet it is Rutger Hauer as the demented Ryder who steals the show. Having already played the villain in a handful of early ‘80s movies (Nighthawks, Blade Runner), Hauer was the perfect choice to portray John Ryder, a madman who gets a kick out of killing people (“Do you got any idea how much blood jets out of a guy's neck when his throat's been slit?”, he asks Jim at one point with a smile on his face). Though he doesn’t have nearly as much screen time in The Hitcher as C. Thomas Howell’s Jim, Hauer’s Ryder looms heavy over the entire film; even when we don’t see him, we know he’s there, watching Jim Halsey every step of the way. 

And that, more than anything else, is what makes The Hitcher one very frightening motion picture.

Friday, December 22, 2017

#2,482. The Burning Moon (1992)

Directed By: Olaf Ittenbach

Starring: Beate Neumeyer, Bernd Muggenthaler, Ellen Fischer

Tag line: "Uncut. Uncensored. Unconscionable"

Trivia: Olaf Ittenbach did all the stunts in this film because he didn't have enough money in the low budget to pay a professional stuntman

According to several sources, the gore scenes in the 1992 German-produced horror anthology The Burning Moon are so intense that the movie’s uncut version is still banned in its native country. Naturally, this piqued my interest, and while I will agree that the film’s director, Olaf Ittenbach (who also handled the effects), does manage to conjure up some impressive carnage, the movie itself was a slog to get through. 

While babysitting his younger sister, drug addict and all-around asshole Peter decides to tell the poor girl a couple of horror-laced bedtime stories. 

The first, titled “Julia’s Love”, is the tale of a teenager named Julia (Beate Neumeyer) who unwittingly goes on a date with a psychopathic killer (Bernd Muggenthaler). Needless to say, the evening doesn’t end well. 

The second story, “The Purity”, is set in the past and follows the exploits of Father Raff (Rudolf Höß), a Catholic priest who, when he’s not busy saying mass or hearing confessions, is raping and killing his female parishioners. Unfortunately, Justuz (Andre Stryl), the village outcast, is being blamed for these horrific acts, and is tormented on a daily basis by angry fathers and boyfriends. Father Raff does what he can to protect Justuz from the mob, but with each new killing the villagers grow more restless. Their frustration eventually boils over, resulting in a turn of events that no one could have predicted. 

A low budget horror film shot on video, The Burning Moon did manage to make me squirm a few times with its gore effects; Julia’s Love has severed limbs as well as an extended murder scene (set in a bathroom) that is tough to sit through. It’s in The Purity, however, that The Burning Moon distinguishes itself, thanks to some very grisly killings and a finale that features a trip into hell, where all sorts of terrible goings-on occur (teeth drilled; heads lopped off; and, most effective of all, one of the damned is torn up the middle when his legs are pulled apart). From a gore standpoint, the hell sequence is truly awesome, and those who love their horror bloody will have a blast watching it. 

The problem is its pacing; The Burning Moon contains too many unnecessary scenes, obviously thrown in to pad its running time. The film’s opening, for example, has more than its share of pointless moments; we tag along with Peter to a job interview (which he intentionally messes up) and later on there’s a nighttime fracas during which he and his pals face off against a rival gang. So when it’s eventually revealed that Peter is nothing more than the storyteller, guiding us from one tale to the next, we can’t help but wonder what the point was of his early scenes (we knew the second we met him that Peter was a jerk. Why beat us over the head with it?). 

Even the two main segments have their downtimes, not to mention cutaways that are so random they’re almost laughable (a dog running through a field, a cross hanging on a wall, etc). Because it slows down so often, The Burning Moon can’t maintain the tension that it’s more violent moments generate. There were even times when I was a little bored by it all. 

With so few movies left in this challenge of mine, I actually considered switching The Burning Moon off at the halfway point and selecting another title to watch. I’m glad I didn’t, though, because the finale in hell was pretty darn creative, and almost made up for some of the film’s weaknesses. 

So my advice to you is this: fast-forward to the hell sequence and skip the rest of The Burning Moon. You won’t be missing as much as you might think.

#2,481. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

Directed By: Hayao Miyazaki

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma

Tag line: "I was feeling blue, but I'm better now"

Trivia: 462 colors were used in this movie

One of animator / director Hayao Miyazaki’s most underrated films, 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service centers on a teenage witch who strikes out on her own in the hopes of finding her place in the world. 

Now that she’s 13 years old, Kiki, a young witch, must leave home and continue her training in the real world. With her talking cat Jiji in tow, an enthusiastic Kiki settles down in a large seaside village and quickly befriends Osomo, a baker’s wife, who lets the eager newcomer move into their upstairs storage room. Before long, Kiki opens up her own delivery service, and with the help of her trusty broom she manages to generate a great deal of business for herself. But when her powers start to fade, Kiki must find a way to get them back, and fast. Should she fail, her dreams of becoming a full-fledged witch may be over before they’ve had a chance to begin. 

As I mentioned in my write-up of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki’s films are at their best when his characters take to the sky, and Kiki’s Delivery Service features a number of scenes in which its lead hops on her broom and soars through the air. From the moment she starts her trip (when Kiki has some trouble controlling her broom) to the thrilling finale, Miyazaki uses the beauty of flight to build tension and excitement throughout Kiki’s Delivery Service, and does so brilliantly. 

Yet it’s Kiki herself, with her infectious exuberance for life, who is the heart and soul of this film. A smart, ambitious teenager, Kiki (at the outset, anyway) is always upbeat, a nice contrast to her pessimistic cat Jiji (who, thanks to his mopey attitude and fear of the unknown, gets most of the laughs early on). With her kindly disposition and willingness to work hard, Kiki is an excellent role model for young girls, and along with Nausicaa and Spirited Away’s Chihiro is one of Miyazaki’s most well-defined characterizations. 

A great movie for parents to share with their daughters, Kiki’s Delivery Service also, in my opinion, ranks right up there with Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro as one of Hayao Miyazaki’s finest achievements.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

#2,480. Emperor of the North (1973)

Directed By: Robert Aldrich

Starring: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Keith Carradine

Tag line: "The only way to win is to stay alive"

Trivia: Willis Kyle, President of the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railway, allowed the film company to have unlimited access to his company's rolling stock for the film

Lee Marvin vs. Ernest Borgnine… two of the roughest, toughest hombres in Hollywood history going head-to-head. Now that’s a movie, and it’s the showdown between the two that makes Robert Aldrich’s 1973 film Emperor of the North so damn entertaining. 

The year is 1933 and the Great Depression is in full swing. Vagrants commonly referred to as “hobos” hop onto moving railway cars in the hopes of getting to where to jobs are, but not everyone who works for the railroad is willing to give these destitute souls a free ride. One guy in particular, a conductor for the Oregon line known as “Shack” (Ernest Borgnine), is considered the meanest S.O.B. of the bunch, and would rather club a hobo over the head than let him stow away. Ask any vagrant and he’ll tell you: nobody rides for free on Shack’s train. 

But then, Shack has yet to cross paths with “A-No. 1” (Lee Marvin), the craftiest hobo of them all. In fact, A-No. 1 has vowed to ride Shack’s train to the end of the line, a feat that, should he pull it off, would make him a hero to his peers. 

One thing that A-No. 1 wasn’t banking on, however, was a partner; it seems that a newcomer named Cigaret (Keith Carradine) has been bragging about how he’ll beat A-No. 1 to the punch and be the first to hitch a ride on Shack’s train. Still, despite their rough start, A-No. 1 decides to take Cigaret under his wing and show him the ropes, all the while knowing that it’s much more difficult to sneak two people aboard a boxcar than it is one, and if Shack should catch them in the act, neither hobo will live to tell their tale. 

Both Marvin and Borgnine are excellent in Emperor of the North, and we get a pretty good idea what to expect from their characters the first time we see them on-screen. In one of the film’s earliest scenes, Borgnine’s Shack spots a hobo hopping onto his train. Sneaking up behind the unsuspecting vagabond (who was resting for a moment on an outdoor platform), Shack hits him on the back of the head with a hammer, causing the poor vagrant to fall forward (he’s pulled under the train and killed instantly). From start to finish, Shack is a total bastard; even his fellow workers are against him (most are secretly rooting for A-No. 1 to succeed). 

On the flipside is A-No 1, a guy who knows what it takes to survive these tough times. When first we meet him, A-No. 1 is carrying a chicken he’s just swiped, and must fight off an attack by Cigaret and a couple of kids, who want the bird for themselves. A-No. 1 manages to get the better of them and escape with the chicken, proving he’s as tough as he is shrewd. The confrontations between Shack and A-No. 1 will follow suit: Shack relies on brute force to keep A-No. 1 and Cigaret at bay, while A-No. 1 uses the tricks he’s learned over the years to stay one step ahead of his adversary. 

Emperor of the North does have its share of humor (there’s a baptism scene that made me laugh out loud); some nail-biting action sequences (the final showdown between Shack and A-No. 1 is intensely violent); and a strong supporting performance by Keith Carradine, playing a guy we’re never quite sure about (at times, he’s unbearably arrogant). But Emperor of the North is at its best when Marvin and Borgnine are facing off against each other, two characters with very different ideals going mano et mano, and doing so in a way that will surely grab your attention.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

#2,479. Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970)

Directed By: Waris Hussein

Starring: Gene Wilder, Margot Kidder, Eileen Colgan

Tag line: "The Loser Who Beat the System!"

Trivia: Jean Renoir was considered to direct

Whereas most of the men in his neighborhood work at the factory, Aloysius “Quackser” Fortune (Gene Wilder) spends his days patrolling the streets of Dublin with a homemade wheelbarrow and a shovel, scooping up the valuable dung left behind by delivery horses and selling it as fertilizer to local homeowners. 

But life is about to get much more complicated for Quackser. First, he meets Zazel (Margot Kidder), an American student enrolled at a Dublin University, and before long Quackser is head-over-heels in love with her. Then, his livelihood is threatened by a new ordinance that, if approved, will force delivery services to switch out their horse-drawn buggies for motorized vehicles. 

Realizing their son might soon be out of a job, his mother (May Ollis) and father (Seamus Forde) try to convince Quackser to move to America, where he can live with his cousin in the Bronx. But Quackser isn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet, and with Zazel’s help he may find a way to beat the system and maintain his independence. 

Directed by Waris Hussein, Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx is an odd, offbeat romantic comedy that, thanks to the fine work of its star, you can’t help but enjoy. Sporting a convincing Irish brogue, Gene Wilder is at his likable best as the quirky title character who roams the streets of Dublin looking for manure and instead finds love. Kidder, in one of her earliest film roles, is equally as good as the elusive Zazel, a flighty young woman who, though she has feelings for Quackser, is unsure about their relationship and maybe even a little embarrassed by it (she makes plans to meet Quackser at a dance, then shows up with a fellow student and contemplates sneaking away when she spots Quackser on the dance floor). Yet whenever the two are together, Zazel is clearly drawn to the older Quackser, and enjoys the time she spends in his company. 

The scenes featuring Quackser and Zazel are, indeed, well-handled and even quite touching, but Wilder is also strong when on his own; whether he’s selling his wares to a lonely housewife or being ridiculed by the patrons at the local pub, Quackser is the kind of guy you want to know better, and you hope like hell that everything works out for him in the end. 

Though it stars an American (Wilder) and a Canadian (Kidder), Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx is an Irish movie through and through (it was shot on-location in Dublin, and in several scenes Zazel even rattles off a few tidbits of local history, facts about Dublin that she learned while at University). And thanks to Wilder’s performance and the smart, sentimental script penned by Gabriel Walsh, Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx proved to be one of the most endearing Irish films I’ve seen in some time.

#2,478. The Cocoanuts (1929)

Directed By: Robert Florey, Joseph Santley

Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx

Tag line: "Paramount's All Talking-Singing Musical Comedy Hit!"

Trivia: When The Marx Brothers were shown the final cut of the film, they were so horrified they tried to buy the negative back and prevent its release.

I recently picked up a Blu-Ray set that features the five movies the Marx Brothers (aka Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo) made for Universal Studios between 1929 and 1933, a group that includes Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. All four of these films are classics, and contain some of the Marx’s finest cinematic routines. Bot of all the movies in this set, the title I was most anxious to watch was the one I had never seen in its entirety: 1929’s The Cocoanuts, the first picture the quartet ever made. 

Mr. Hammer (Groucho) is the proprietor of Florida’s Cocoanut Hotel, but despite its beachside location neither he nor his assistant Jamison (Zeppo) has been able to drum up any business. Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont), one of the Cocoanut’s few guests, is trying to convince her daughter Polly (Mary Eaton) to break her engagement to Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw), a hotel clerk who hopes to one day be a successful architect, and instead marry Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring), who claims to come from a prestigious family. 

What Mrs. Potter doesn’t know, however, is that Yates is actually a con man, and with the help of his partner in crime Penelope (Kay Francis), he intends to steal a valuable diamond necklace that’s been in the Potter family for generations. The situation gets even more chaotic when a pair of bumbling thieves (Chico and Harpo Marx) check into the Cocoanut and are immediately pulled into the whole sordid affair. 

The Cocoanuts was based on the Brothers’ stage show of the same name, and because it was the first of its kind I suppose it’s only natural that the movie feels a little stage-bound at times (though director Florey, who was also shooting Skyscraper Symphony while this film was in production, does try to liven things up with some nifty camera angles). One issue I had with The Cocoanuts that I couldn’t overlook, however, was the fact that the Marx Brothers aren’t in it nearly as much as they should have been! 

Along with its romantic entanglements (Polly is forced by her mother to choose between Bob and Yates), the film has a variety of dance numbers (some well-choreographed, others bland) and several songs written by Irving Berlin that are performed throughout. Romantic subplots always feel out of place in a Marx Brothers picture (their next outing, Animal Crackers, also features one that never quite clicks), but the love story in The Cocoanuts is especially cloying (during Bob and Polly’s first scene together, they sing “When My Dreams Come True” as a duet, after which Bob launches into a long, unnecessary diatribe about how he would fix up the Cocoanut Hotel). 

As usual, both Harpo and Chico are also given a chance to show off their musical skills (Chico on piano, Harpo with both a harp and a clarinet), but otherwise the four brothers are pushed into the background when the song and dance numbers kick in, and the film suffers as a result. 

When Groucho, Harpo and Chico are on-screen, The Cocoanuts soars, and we see the beginnings of what would become their regular routines (Groucho’s and Chico’s spirited wordplay; Groucho simultaneously flirting with and insulting Margaret Dumont; Harpo’s side-splitting pantomime; and Zeppo acting as Groucho’s straight man). I only wish there were more scenes with the brothers, and less of everything else.