(On TV, January 2019) There are some classical comedy pairings out there, and the Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor was one of them—while they made four movies together, the last one was reportedly a dud, and only the first two are acknowledged hits. Silver Streak is the first of their four movies, and it’s still a good watch today, even as it reflects another time. This blend of comedy and thrills features Wilder as a meek book editor travelling by train from Los Angeles to Chicago. Of course, stuff happens and before long he’s trying to piece together a murder mystery in between being thrown off the train and collaborating with a petty criminal to get back on it. Despite Pryor and Wilder’s comic chemistry (only they could make the blackface sequence work without being offensive) and the lighthearted nature of the film, Silver Streak arguably works better as a semi-Hitchockian thriller. The structure of the film itself is amusing: as we settle down for a comfortable train-bound mystery, our protagonist spends as much time off the train than on it, and Pryor joins the movie only midway through. Obviously shot in Canada (as per the train livery), it’s a comedy with some impressive physical action staging along the way, all the way to its destructive climax. Wilder’s quirky charm works well in grounding the film, allowing Pryor to get away with more outrageous dialogue. While Silver Streak is not quite polished (in a way so typical of mid-1970s production) and occasionally feels scattered between different genres, it pulls itself together in time for the finale and leaves viewers happy for having seen it.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) Gene Wilder was a fantastic comedian, and his presence elevated many of the otherwise unremarkable movies he starred in. Stir Crazy is, on many levels, a rather average film—two down-on-their-luck protagonists being jailed on some spurious charges and working their way out of there. But throw in Wilder and Richard Prior in the lead roles and the film becomes much better than it feels on paper. Never mind the plot and how it ends up with prisoners entering a mechanical bull riding competition (!) when there’s Wilder’s character going in solitary confinement and emerging as serene as a man having come in touch with himself can be. Those moments, far more than the forgettable plot, are what sticks in mind after watching Stir Crazy. There is some similarity in tone here with the original The Longest Yard—kind of an underdogs-and-outlaws-are-cool outlook to unify otherwise very different films. Otherwise, there really isn’t much here to stick in mind, as pleasant as the film can be.
(On DVD, March 2018) Surprisingly enough, I had never seen Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory as a kid … and I’m almost glad I hadn’t, because few other children’s movies have such a naked contempt for their audience. (Needless to say, it’s adapted from a novel by famous misanthrope Roald Dahl.) As a result, the film is almost more interesting for adults than for kids—my favourite aspects of the film was the madcap “the world’s gone wild for golden tickets” news footage from the first half, and then Gene Wilder’s spectacularly sarcastic performance as Wonka in the second half. “Bad kids versus super-snarker” would be one possible alternate title. For a 1971 film, it certainly delivers on high concept imagination: The wild world of candy is pushed to its conceptual limits, and the special effects are often surprisingly good. Still, much of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory depends on Wilder and his oddball sense of humour. I audibly laughed at a few moments, from the computer sequence to the teacher scenes to Wonka’s literary allusions. Wilder’s performance in incarnating eccentric trickster Wonka is terrific—no wonder it became a reference. What’s particularly likable about the film is how it’s really not afraid to hop between moods as needed—the tunnel sequence is just as creepy as it ever was, and yet it fits in-between the far more light-hearted rest of the film. (It probably plays much better on a second viewing, as it becomes a pushed-to-eleven example of Wonka’s deliberate eccentricity. While the musical numbers are hit-and-miss (“The Candy-man” is a classic for other reasons) and the ending is a bit abrupt, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is a surprisingly good time for those who haven’t yet seen it.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) Being a modern moviegoer taking a look at the classics can lead to blasphemous statements, so here goes: I like the remake of The Producers better than the original. Once you get your rage out of your system, consider this: The original Mel Brooks version of The Producers is scattershot—it aims in all directions, occasionally hitting a bullseye and occasionally firing off in the air. The real highlight of this original production only comes after an hour of various nonsense—it’s really good once the stage musical begins and we get to see the insanity of a camp version of Hitler. In the meantime (and afterwards), The Producers is duller than expected. In contrast, the remake version doesn’t quite capture the stage musical in its unhinged glory, but has a much stronger first and third act, with more memorable supporting characters and a stream of musical numbers throughout. Yeah, I’ll take the remake if only for Uma’s Ulla. Still, preferring the remake over the fifty-year-old original shouldn’t take away from the qualities of the original. As stated, the original has a much stronger musical sequence. It also benefits from Gene Wilder and (to a lesser extent) Zero Mostel in the lead roles. There’s also a definite shock quality to the original that can’t be properly appreciated by modern audiences—although it can be felt secondhand from some reactions baked in the film itself. Remake aside, The Producers remains a film that can be readily watched even today without trouble … but it is definitely of its time, from a writer/director making his debut. Influential, but since then supplanted by a much slicker (and focused) remake. Considering that Brooks himself wrote much of the remake, that’s not that much of a blasphemous statement.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) There’s no denying that Bonnie and Clyde still carries a strong mystique even today. It’s a reference that pops up every single time there’s a man-and-woman criminal team. It’s also a film that showed very clearly the state of Hollywood by the end of the sixties, sufficiently emboldened by the end of the Hays Code to start showing blood and gore in big-budget entertainment. I can’t quite picture how revolutionary or upsetting the film must have been at the time, with elaborately constructed scene in which people are shot in the head by criminals portrayed as heroes. Such things are, for better or for worse, far more common these days and so Bonnie and Clyde is approached differently today without the element of shock. Personal preferences certainly come into play—I had a surprisingly negative reaction to the film myself: being generally unreceptive to the stereotype of the heroic outlaw, I was unable to empathize much with the murdering anti-heroes. (I’m also Canadian, if that helps: “Peace, order and good government”) The film does have its qualities—Warren Beatty is at the top of his young roguish persona here, and let’s not forget Faye Dunaway’s presence either. Screen legends such as Gene Hackman and Gene Wilder also pop up in small roles, although modern viewers may be disappointed at their ineffectual characters or small roles. The infamous ending remains upsetting. Bonnie and Clyde, taken on its own fifty years later, is a great deal less special than it must have been. Despite remaining a pivotal film in Hollywood history, I’m not sure that it has aged all that well.