(Second viewing, On TV, March 2017) Hmmm. My memories of Robin Hood: Men in Tights weren’t particularly good to begin with, but revisiting the movie more than twenty years later doesn’t do it any favour. The only reason why I’m not incensed about it is that there’s been plenty of terrible spoofs since then, even if you mercifully forget all about the Friedberg/Seltzer abominations. The truth is, Mel Brooks has a few unfortunate tendencies and while his best movies manage to avoid them, they’re nearly all on display in Men in Tights. The worst has to be a directorial vision that allows characters to mug for the camera, fully cognizant that they’re in a dumb comedy. That’s how we get quizzical glances, broad self-aware performances, pauses for laughter and blatant hamming. See, I’m funny! Is the unspoken assertion here, allowing viewers to shout back, “No, you’re not!” It harms the film even more when the pacing is slack enough to anticipate the next joke—the best spoofs usually move along at rocket pacing, layering jokes in background and almost never letting the audience in on the jokes. Here, there are basically honking signals, spotlights and subtitles to point viewers at the humour. Brooks himself shows up in a self-congratulatory sequence that quickly turns unbearable. Cary Elwes was a good choice for Robin Hood given a pedigree that included The Princess Bride … unless you’ve just watched The Princess Bride and was reminded of a kind of brilliance so lacking here. Isaac Hayes and Dave Chapelle do okay with what they’re given, but the only actors who escape from the mess with some decency are Roger Rees as the sheriff (hamming it up like Alan Rickman, but not mugging for laughs as terribly as other actors) and Amy Yasbeck, whose red mane is a compelling character in her own right. On the big scale of spoof comedies, the bottom has been lowered time and time again by Friedberg/Seltzer, and if Men in Tights is quite a bit better than those (by sheer virtue of actually attempting jokes), it’s still mediocre compared to the ZAZ classics or even Brooks” best. It should do if all you’re looking for is an amusing evening film, but given that my low expectations weren’t even met, I’d hazard that you’d be better off watching or re-watching other spoofs instead.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) Surprisingly enough, I wasn’t looking forward to revisiting The Princess Bride: I had such good memories of the film that I feared seeing it again would damage the magic. Fortunately, I shouldn’t have worried: The good parts of The Princess Bride are still as good today, and I had managed to forget much of the less-quoted second half of the film. Penned by William Goldman (from his own equally hilarious novel), the script manages to be self-aware, witty, clever and warm at once—the pedestrian direction is low on flashy moments, but clearly doesn’t get in the way of the script. It helps that the actors are almost all perfect for their role: André the Giant may not be a gifted thespian, but he’s just right for his character, and the same goes for most of the cast. Cary Elwes is a B-grade actor at best, but he’s fantastic here as the hero. Robin Wright Penn has the advantage of perfectly incarnating how a princess should look and behave, while Wallace Shawn remains forever linked to his distinctive role as Vizzini. If anything, The Princess Bride is even funnier now that the codes and tropes of fantasy and fairy tales have been widely internalized, and as Hollywood is still churning out remakes of known fairy-tales into unremarkable fantasy epics. It’s a light and funny film, but it’s certainly not simple-minded or content with superficiality. It’s still great even now. See it again with a member of a younger generation to pass the fun along.
(On Cable TV, June 2013) There’s a lot to admire in the first half of The Pentagon Wars and, unfortunately, less and less to like as it goes on. This is a somewhat unusual film that dares tackle military procurement as a comedy (!) and the beginning of the film has to do a lot of exposition (in a relatively painless fashion) to get viewers up-to-speed with the basic premise. Cary Elwes isn’t too bad as the sometimes-bewildered officer who comes to learn the dirty history of the M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, whereas Kelsey Grammer doesn’t break any typecasting as the fanatically right-wing general who slowly becomes the antagonist of the film. The Pentagon Wars is, at first, fairly clever and generally fact-based; unfortunately, this changes in the second half of the film, as it becomes increasingly slapstick based: the script becomes steadily dumber, to the point where characters start acting like buffoons in a broader and broader (read: stupider) military comedy… much like Down Periscope, also featuring Kelsey Grammer. The film’s visible departure from reality may lead a few viewers to investigate the real story behind the film, leading to further disenchantment with its liberties. As it turns out, not testing the vehicle to destruction is actually a good idea when dealing with multi-million-dollar items: you get more value out of each test vehicle. But the film’s insistence in painting everything in goofier shades of black and white ends up damaging what started out as a relatively more clever comedy. Let’s hand it to HBO, though, for producing a film with a relatively cerebral premise, and following through with a decent budget. The result may be disappointing, but it’s already more ambitious than many other.