It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) Review

Director: Stanley Kramer

Genre(s): Adventure, Comedy

Runtime: 154 minutes (edited version), 174 minutes (restored video version), 205 minutes (roadshow version)

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

It seems to me that It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World was attempting to be to adventure-comedies what The Longest Day (1962) was to war movies. This behemoth of a film has been released in various runtimes over the years, but it’s always retained its epic scale. This flick is about a group of strangers who encounter a dying man – “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante) – after a car wreck, who reveals to them the cryptic location of a stash of cash. Naturally, a race begins with the various witnesses setting out to try to reach the money first.

With its all-star cast, this comedy largely relies on obvious humor. Cameos come and cameos go (Jim Backus, as Tyler Fitzgerald, is perhaps the most consistently funny one), but the laughs largely come from absurdly unsubtle jokes. To the film’s credit, it does an excellent job juggling all of the characters it has to work with. Alliances shift, but it’s always pretty clear as to what’s going on. The characters are drawn both broadly and colorfully.

The truth is that It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World works better for its adventure spectacle than its comedy. The moments of action and destruction here can be stupendous. The prize for “Best Action Sequence” goes to the meticulous, intricate gas station punch-up. The slapstick stuntwork deserves a special mention. It often looks quite dangerous, and it sort of reminds me of the stunts that Hong Kong performers would later excel at.

Could this be considered the comedy version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)? Hmmm…perhaps it would be more accurate to say that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the western version of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, considering that the latter came first. While the humor in the 1963 picture in question sometimes falters, the pacing and action-adventure-type aspects make it worth watching for the curious. Few movies expose the greedy side of mankind in such a jolly manner.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Monster (1925) Review

Director: Roland West

Genre(s): Comedy, Horror

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Despite getting top billing, Lon Chaney doesn’t appear in The Monster until about half-of-an-hour into the runtime. The plot here is about mad scientist Dr. Ziska (Lon Chaney) luring victims into a remote sanitarium, until one night where three guests – amateur detective Johnny Goodlittle (Johnny Arthur), town dandy Amos Rugg (Hallam Cooley), and damsel-in-distress Betty Watson (Gertrude Olmstead) – threaten his party. This silent movie proves that they were making horror-comedies all the way back in the 1920s.

The Monster has some interesting ideas (it was possibly the first mad scientist film to depict the doctor having various deranged henchmen, for example), but it’s just too slowly paced for its own good. Some early scenes, showing small-town life, seem to move at a lethargic speed, but the sequences in the haunted asylum don’t fare any better. It may be a very early “dark, old house” flick, but the pacing here is slow by the standards of any cinematic time period.

Perhaps the nicest thing that can be said about this feature is that the horror and comedy elements don’t overshadow each other. While there are some cheap “scares” (an unexplained skeleton in a closet?) and cheap “laughs” (a teetotaler getting drunk off his ass?), this picture knows to not let the scary and humorous stuff negate one another. The finale is at least sort of chilling, with Lon Chaney’s character threatening to conduct a bizarre experiment.

One of the first words that springs to mind to describe The Monster is “slow.” Ouch. The characters aren’t too memorable and Chaney should’ve been in it more. It does hold a somewhat interesting place in the history of horror movies, but is that enough to recommend it? I’m going to say “no,” but you certainly could do a lot worse.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) Review

Director: Peyton Reed

Genre(s): Action, Comedy, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 118 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a sequel that tops the original (Ant-Man [2015]) in every way. The comedy, action set-pieces, and emotional hooks are all more effective here, not that they were bad by any means in the first installment. The plot of this picture is about superhero Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), with his special suit that shrinks the wearer to ant-size, trying to help Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) rescue Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from the Quantum Realm, while battling those who want to steal the size-altering technology he uses.

While this is obviously a superhero movie, the physical action often takes a backseat to the humor and characterizations. This might be detrimental to the success of any other actioner, but Ant-Man and the Wasp might be better off for it. This relatively family-friendly flick certainly is a crowd-pleaser with its well-integrated special effects and creative action.

While the jokes come fast, frequent, and funny, I didn’t get the feeling that they were undercutting the gravity of the situations onscreen quite like they did with the first film. This action-comedy is no drama, but the sympathies of audience members are pretty easily gained by this more earnest take. Even one of the villains of the story, Ava (Hannah John-Kamen), isn’t really such a bad person, and this feeds into the somewhat kiddie-friendly nature of the production.

The dramatic hooks give Ant-Man and the Wasp more weight than its predecessor. It still sticks pretty closely to the established Marvel formula, but it is probably one of the better features to employ it. I suppose that each subseries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe offers something slightly different for viewers, and these Ant-Man flicks specialize in movies where the physical stakes aren’t particularly high (by superhero media standards), but the films still manage to thrill anyway.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Ant-Man (2015) Review

Director: Peyton Reed

Genre(s): Action, Comedy, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 117 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Ant-Man is a superhero film that sticks pretty closely to the established Marvel movie formula. Fortunately, this formula works quite well, even if the feature sometimes feels like a product from an assembly line. The basic plot here is about a thief named Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) who steals a high-tech suit that can shrink the wearer to ant-size, and must use it for the greater good of humanity. It’s more of a heist picture than your typical Marvel flick, but it still has the usual save-the-world stakes.

The likable cast and inventive set-pieces involving the shrinking Ant-Man suit are the real reasons to watch. The characters are very well-defined, and the production makes you care about ants, of all things. The lengthy action climax will satisfy those looking for superhero-related chaos. Ant-Man is also pretty funny, being one of the more comedic entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

On the down side, this movie feels the need to follow up several moments of action and/or drama with quippy humor. This can sort of undercut the gravity of the scenes, and almost feels like a coldly calculated way of “keeping matters light.” It’s already a fairly light-weight piece, so does it really need that sort of thing? It almost appears that the film is too scared to commit to sincerity at times.

While Ant-Man would be topped by the next installment in its subseries – Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) – this flick can still be viewed as effective entertainment. Despite what I stated in the above paragraph, this work still has a solid emotional hook and it benefits from characters that the audience gives a hoot about. Cynics may look at it as just another cog in Marvel’s money-making machine, but I think it works reasonably well as a solo feature.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Super (2010) Review

Director: James Gunn

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

What if Napoleon Dynamite (2004) had actually been an R-rated vigilante movie? The superhero comedy Super from 2010 channels the same quirky energy that the 2004 picture does. In it, possibly schizophrenic fry cook Frank Darbo (Rainn Wilson) decides to become a costumed superhero named the Crimson Bolt after his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) runs away with a drug lord named Jacques (Kevin Bacon).

This uproariously funny film is a vicious satire of the comic book movie subgenre. It takes a what-if-superheroes-existed-in-the-real-world? approach to the subject matter that echoes that of the two Kick-Ass flicks. For my money, Super does it much better. Hilarious one minute and disturbingly violent the next, this feature’s Blu Ray case has two quotes from the critics that bring up the word “subversive,” so don’t expect your typical action movie.

Well, Super isn’t much of an action film at all. Yes, it has some of that sort of stuff, but most of the picture focuses on guffaws and grisly carnage that doesn’t really take place in an “action” context. The finale should satisfy the action buffs out there, though. With its transgressive behavior, this could be seen as the Taxi Driver (1976) of the superhero movie generation (or does Joker [2019] fit that description?).

This film split the critics right down the middle, but I think of it quite highly. It nails the black comedy and the violence is both cathartic and unnerving. Here are a couple of fun facts: Jean-Claude Van Damme was originally cast to play the villain, Jacques, and one movie that the main character watches on television is Troma’s War (1988), another ultra-violent comedy you should watch if you like this sort of entertainment.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Duck, You Sucker (1971) Review

Director: Sergio Leone

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, War, Western

Runtime: 157 minutes, 120 minutes (initial American version)

MPAA Rating: PG (initial American version), R (longer cut)

IMDb Page

The final western that legendary director Sergio Leone helmed was the sprawling, war-themed epic Duck, You Sucker, originally titled “GiĆ¹ la Testa” in Italian and also sometimes known as “A Fistful of Dynamite” in English. The plot is about a Mexican bandit named Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) and an Irish revolutionary named John H. Mallory (James Coburn) teaming up to rob the Mesa Verde bank, but ending up involved neck-deep in the Mexican Revolution. This one’s a real genre-buster, combining elements of action-adventure, comedy, drama, war, and western, with some hetero “bromance” thrown into the mix.

When it comes to directing, Sergio Leone really knows what he’s doing, so every frame of the film is electric. Frequent Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone provides the brilliant musical score, and it’s the best work of music I’ve ever heard from him (and that’s saying something!). The cinematography is top-shelf and the performances (especially those from Rod Steiger and James Coburn) are nothing short of fantastic.

The biggest downside to the masterpiece Duck, You Sucker is how muddled its thesis is (well, that and its unfortunate misogyny). The movie’s take on the nature of revolutions is frustratingly incoherent, as it veers from showing savage atrocities by Mexican government forces and displaying their malevolence to the poor of Mexico to being an “anti-Zapata western,” where politically-motivated violence by the rebellious factions is essentially condemned (think of the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who). I don’t even know what this motion picture is trying to say…and it’s desperately trying to say something.

Okay, this work doesn’t make a lot of sense on the political side, but just about everything else is magnificent. The humor is quirky and delightfully broad, and the drama is heartrending. On the action front, this feature boasts some truly massive explosions and an apocalyptic body count. It’s a tragicomic war-western that commands the audience’s attention and gets beneath their skin.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special (2020) Review

Director: Ken Cunningham

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Kids & Family, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

It’s probably a daring move to put the words “Holiday” and “Special” together into a Star Wars movie title after the disastrous The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), which is considered such an abomination that it’s never been given an official home video release. However, in 2020, Lego put out its own Christmas-themed Star Wars film, meeting greater acclaim than the 1978 flop. Set after the events in Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019), the good guys of that picture set out to the Wookiee homeworld of Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day, while Rey (voiced by Helen Sadler) tries to uncover some lost Jedi knowledge, causing her to discover a gem that enables time travel.

This animated film is clearly aimed at people who are already fans of the Star Wars saga, especially the kids. It breaks no new ground, but it provides a fun nostalgia trip for viewers accustomed to that beloved galaxy far, far away. A few actors from the live-action movies even return to voice their respective characters. Anthony Daniels voices C-3PO, Billy Dee Williams does Lando Calrissian, and Kelly Marie Tran brings life to Rose Tico.

The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special is a lightweight pleasure, but it knows that it belongs to a franchise that’s seen plenty of controversy, and it gently ribs a few of the more divisive elements of the series. Its story revolves around time travel, but doesn’t really try much new with the concept, other than using it to show off a bunch of already-iconic characters and situations. Despite being set in a Lego universe, this aspect of the picture seems underused, with little toy-building in sight.

This is an inoffensive comedy that some have compared to an overlong toy commercial. If it is an advertisement, it certainly is an entertaining one, made by people who know the lore of the Star Wars galaxy. The young ones will get the most mileage out of The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special, but those who’ve followed the franchise for a while will be rewarded with an in-joke or two. It’s not essential viewing, but it’s not something you’ll regret watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Diplomaniacs (1933) Review

Director: William A. Seiter

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 61 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Often compared to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933) of the same year, Diplomaniacs is a wild, anti-war satire with a few musical numbers thrown into the mix, because – well- why the Hell not? The story concerns itself with Willy Nilly (Bert Wheeler) and Hercules Grub (Robert Woolsey), two barbers on a Native American reservation who are assigned by the local natives to negotiate an end to all war at a peace conference in Geneva. It’s as crazy as it sounds, and, yes, there will be blackface. Oh, so much blackface.

The first thing that must be discussed when talking about Diplomaniacs is its dated racial humor. Just about every race gets mocked here (and they’re all played by Whites, as far as I could tell), but there is a blackface musical number that has stirred up some controversy in recent times. This makes the film in question difficult to recommend to everybody, but those with strong stomachs when it comes to racial insensitivity will find much to enjoy (other than the song that I was just talking about).

Diplomaniacs is a very funny movie, being one of those pictures that tries to make almost every single line a joke of some kind. It only lasts an hour, so there is a high gag density here. Of course, not every comedic beat lands, but the flick is so likeably silly and audacious in how stupid it will go for a laugh that it still puts a smile on my face. There is definitely some satire in Diplomaniacs, but much of its humor is straightforward goofiness.

Made during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (before the enforcement of the Production Code), this irreverent movie reflects a cynical, Great Depression-era view of international diplomacy. To the filmmakers, it seems like all that politicians and business-people want is war, and everybody else is just too dumb to stop them. There are a lot of laughs to be found, as it never gets too dark, but the blackface sequence means that this one isn’t for everyone.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Matilda (1996) Review

Director: Danny DeVito

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Kids & Family

Runtime: 98 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

While some liberties are taken to make it more cinematic, the 1996 film Matilda sticks close to the spirit of the 1988 Roald Dahl book of the same name. In both, a kid genius named Matilda (Mara Wilson) must put up with neglectful, materialistic parents and psychopathic, tyrannical school headmistress Trunchbull (Pam Ferris). The movie reflects the nature of the novel, where the courageous, compassionate, and intelligent inhabit a dark, menacing world and must work together to protect themselves and other innocents.

Matilda was directed by now-Internet-icon Danny DeVito, who also plays the father (Mr. Wormwood) and the narrator. He gets some of the better moments in the picture, but it certainly doesn’t feel like an ego trip. However, the standout performance here is from Pam Ferris as the vicious, child-hating principal. Often filmed in grotesque close-ups, she’ll intimidate even the adults watching. The acting from the adults may be a bit too broad for some, but I certainly didn’t mind it.

The film’s good-versus-evil struggle shows that even children can be empowered to see justice done on out-of-line adults. There are some fantasy elements here (like in the novel), but I won’t spoil the detail of them here. The special effects related to the supernatural aspects hold up pretty well, which is fairly important considering the feature goes more over-the-top with them than the book.

Matilda is a solid family film, sometimes being funny, sometimes touching, and sometimes suspenseful. It shows that people who use their “powers” for good can triumph over those who abuse theirs. Also, yes, in case you were wondering, that is Paul Reubens playing one of the FBI agents monitoring the activities of the title character’s shady father.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Despicable Me (2010) Review

Directors: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud

Genre(s): Comedy, Fantasy, Kids & Family, Science-Fiction

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

One of the selling points of Despicable Me is that it’s an animated kids’ movie largely told from the perspective of a bad guy. Well, don’t worry, parents, he’s really not that bad of a dude. You see, high-tech supervillain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is plotting on stealing the Moon, but the affection of three orphans, Margo (voiced by Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (voiced by Dana Gaier), and Agnes (voiced by Elsie Fisher), threatens to derail his plans.

While this is certainly a funny film (with a couple of good jabs at Ugly-Americanism), it’s probably the more heartwarming moments that steal the show. The picture strikes a commendable balance between silly humor, loopy action, and human drama, making it run like a well-oiled machine. Okay, “machine” makes the whole thing sound a bit more, uh, mechanical than it actually is, but this is still lightweight stuff.

Steve Carell, who voices the central character, is in top form here. His Gru has an appealing blend of sinister and benevolent traits. Of course, no review of Despicable Me would be complete without a mention of the yellow Minions (the faces that launched a thousand “normie memes”). They’re actually pretty cute and funny, without becoming overbearing.

This feature is painless viewing for grown-ups, so it’s one of those flicks that both parents and their children can both watch and enjoy. Hmmm…maybe I’m underselling it by calling it “painless.” Let’s try this: Despicable Me is a charming, effortlessly engaging piece of cinema that will probably entertain filmgoers of all ages. Ah, yes, that sounds better.

My rating is 7 outta 10.