Monkey Business (1931) Review

Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Musical

Runtime: 77 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

With this movie, you can really feel the Marx Brothers starting to hit their stride. Here, the four Marxes play stowaways on an ocean liner who raise Hell on the ship and get caught up in a brewing gang war. Being based on an original screenplay, rather than one of their Broadway shows (like The Cocoanuts [1929] and Animal Crackers [1930]), this film feels significantly less physically-constrained than its predecessors.

With the Marx Brothers constantly harassing the rich folks on a transatlantic cruise (probably to please Great Depression-era audiences), one can easily see why critics incessantly refer to their style of humor as “anarchic.” The slapstick comedy here is timeless and the verbal stuff isn’t bad either. As with The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, it’s Harpo Marx (playing a character imaginatively named “Harpo”) who has the best gag – this time it’s a zany puppet show.

Monkey Business could actually be one of the more underrated gangster flicks of the Pre-Code era (the time period before the Hollywood Production Code was enforced). Okay, it’s a goofy, anything-goes comedy first and foremost and there’s no shootouts, but organized crime still plays an important role in what could be described as the picture’s plot. One of the best parts of the feature isn’t really even that funny. It’s the somewhat-played-straight fist fight that Zeppo Marx (playing a character named – you guessed it – “Zeppo”) gets into with mobster “Alky” Briggs (Harry Woods) at the end.

Monkey Business was the best Marx Brothers movie (in my opinion) at the time of its original release. It has an appropriate runtime and ends on a climatic note. This serves the humor well. It feels less like a stage play adopted into a film and more like…well, a true film. This flick is quite a bit of fun, and is recommended for fans of comedies – especially older ones.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Animal Crackers (1930) Review

Director: Victor Heerman

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

The second-oldest surviving Marx Brothers movie, Animal Crackers, has the four actors getting more comfortable with being silver screen stars. I’m not sure if telling you the plot is even necessary, since this is a prime example of a comedy film where the jokes overshadow everything else to an extreme degree. Anyway, the story’s about a party being thrown in honor of returning explorer Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho Marx) and the “mystery” of a stolen painting that takes place at said shindig.

The gags here come fast and frequent (this is the picture where Groucho Marx has a one-liner about hunting elephants in his pajamas). Despite Groucho’s wordplay, the funniest bit might be the Professor (Harpo Marx) horsing around with some firearms (don’t try this at home, kiddos!). The musical numbers are also slightly better-integrated than the ones found in the previous flick to feature the Marxes – The Cocoanuts (1929).

I know that people typically don’t watch a Marx Brothers film for the plot, but the one in Animal Crackers feels especially weak. The tale of a swapped painting could’ve been interesting and added some excitement to the proceedings, but little is done with it. The “climax” of the work is impossibly limp. The resolution of the case of the stolen art seems to come out of nowhere and it holds little-to-no weight.

Released in 1930, during the Pre-Code era of Hollywood (prior to the enforcement of the Hollywood Production Code), this movie still feels pretty creaky, even if it is somewhat technically superior to The Cocoanuts. Still, the humor hits the mark more than it misses. Overall, I’d say that the viewer should simply forget about the lame story and just focus on the rapid-fire jokes.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Cocoanuts (1929) Review

Directors: Robert Florey and Joseph Santley

Genre(s): Comedy, Musical

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Believe it or not, The Cocoanuts wasn’t actually the first Marx Brothers movie. There was an unreleased, silent film that they starred in, Humor Risk (1921), that is now considered lost. Anyway, back to The Cocoanuts. This anything-goes comedy is about Hammer (Groucho Marx) and Jamison (Zeppo Marx) running a Florida hotel that’s visited by con artist duo Harpo (Harpo Marx) and Chico (Chico Marx) and that is the sight of a plot to steal some valuable jewels.

Being the oldest surviving Marx Brothers picture, this one has some rough patches. Early on, there were a few moments that had me wondering if I was watching the wrong flick (these were scenes when the Marxes weren’t onscreen). The Cocoanuts sometimes feels like a weird variety show that somebody decided to film, with its semi-random musical and dance numbers and comedy “sketches.” Its stagey nature makes it very obvious that this was based on a play.

However, when this feature gets on a roll, it can be quite funny. Its sense of humor is audaciously corny, largely revolving around wordplay and slapstick. The Marxes even threw in a quick musical number about a side character’s briefly-stolen shirt, probably just for shits and giggles. However, it’s probably Harpo Marx who gets the biggest laugh (well, from me anyway) in his truly absurd scene with a telephone and an inkwell.

For being the first released Marx Brothers movie, this one is a surprising success. Yes, it’s older than dirt, being sent to theaters in 1929, but the sequences where the Marxes get to do their thing are a sight to see. Stick with it and you’ll be rewarded. While much of the comedy feels of its time, other moments of humor feel downright avant-garde.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Honeymoon Machine (1961) Review

Director: Richard Thorpe

Genre(s): Comedy, Romance

Runtime: 87 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the few light comedies that actor Steve McQueen did during his relatively short career was The Honeymoon Machine. According to Wikipedia, Cary Grant was actually the first choice for the McQueen role, but he turned it down. In this film, a sailor in the U.S. Navy, Ferguson “Fergie” Howard (Steve McQueen), leads an attempt to use a top-secret supercomputer to make a financial killing at a roulette table in a Venetian casino.

This movie is pretty quaint nowadays. It’s somewhat amusing to see the characters obsessed with a massive, clunky, primitive-looking computer that they can’t even bring ashore (they communicate with it via signal lamp). Now, we have gadgets that could out-think that behemoth of a device that can fit in our pockets. Technology marches on. Overall, the picture sort of resembles an actionless version of Kelly’s Heroes (1970), with American military personnel trying to make a quick buck under the noses of their superiors.

The Honeymoon Machine is based on the 1959 play The Golden Fleecing. This is not hard to believe, considering the confined nature of the flick. There’s a few scenes at the beginning set aboard the naval ship that McQueen’s character is assigned to, but most of the runtime is spent in a couple of hotel rooms and the casino floor. Fortunately, these are pretty luxurious hotel rooms, so it gives the audience some eye candy. To complicate the plot, the main character falls in love with Julie Fitch (Brigid Bazlen), the daughter of Admiral Fitch (Dean Jagger), his commanding officer.

This rom-com is a hard one to have strong feelings about. It’s short (at 87 minutes long), so it doesn’t exactly waste your time, but it’s so lightweight that it doesn’t really offer anything new (well, other than fancy computers for 1961 audiences). The humor isn’t particularly appealing. According to the IMDb Trivia page for this picture, Steve McQueen left the first public screening of it early and swore to never again work for MGM.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Network (1976) Review

Director: Sidney Lumet

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama

Runtime: 121 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Did the 1976 dramedy Network predict how sensationalistic, trashy, and cynical (in the sense of trying to make a fast buck) television, especially the news, would become in the twenty-first century? This biting satire feels awfully damn prescient these days, even if it probably felt ridiculous to those watching it in the 1970s. At the T.V. network UBS, suicidal anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) becomes a ratings sensation when the powers behind the scenes allow him to go on insane rants on air.

For a film released in 1976, this movie feels shockingly relevant. It’s a powerful indictment of demagoguery that doesn’t forget to be funny, too. In some ways, it almost feels like a comedic version of All the King’s Men (1949) set in the world of news media. Network shows just how easy it is to manipulate a crowd (or mob) that’s unsatisfied with the status quo. In case you’re out of the loop, this is the flick where the quote “I’m as mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” came from.

This picture is often chaotic in nature, with people talking over each other or multiple goings-on vying for the viewers’ attention. It makes the feature feel even more modern. If I have a quibble with Network, it must be the b-story, revolving around an affair between Max Schumacher (William Holden) and Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway). It does flesh out these characters, but I find it to be far less interesting than the antics of Peter Finch’s character and the behind-the-scenes wranglings over whether to keep him on the air or not.

Network builds up to a bold and surprising finale that definitely leaves an impression on the audience. With the exception of some of the scenes dealing with Holden’s character’s affair, this movie is still immediate and fresh, wryly predicting the future of trash television. This classic was nominated for many awards (including Best Picture at the Oscars), including being nominated for Best Science Fiction Film at the Saturn Awards. Wait…what?!?

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Pulp Fiction (1994) Review

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 154 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Quentin Tarantino, using his trademark blood-soaked-hipster aesthetic, brought about a filmmaking revolution with Pulp Fiction. With its nonlinear storytelling and ruthlessly hip nature, this beloved movie spawned countless imitators. The plot’s pretty loose, but revolves around the stories of two chatty hitmen – Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) – and boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), who’s ordered to take a dive in the ring by mob boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).

Pulp Fiction, despite its popularity, is a misnamed movie, being more of a darkly comedic neo-noir than a work of cinematic pulp. Pulp is something more along the lines of the Indiana Jones series, anything Tintin, King Kong (1933), the Brendan Fraser Mummy franchise, The Untouchables (1987), Island of Lost Souls (1932), Dillinger (1973), etc. Pedantry aside, there is some very good location work here, and some sequences, like the apartment interrogation involving Samuel L. Jackson’s character and the pick-your-weapon scene are truly genius.

The truth is: I’m not much of a fan of this flick. This eye-rollingly talky and self-conscious pop-culture-apalooza features characters that I often wish would just shut up. Nothing’s as simple as “yes,” “no,” or “okay” in this picture’s universe. With its look-how-cool-I-am attitude, Pulp Fiction verges on the emotionless. There’s surprisingly little human drama to sustain the feature, although some parts are admirably suspenseful. Ultimately, it leaves the audience feeling little.

This film, which helped put director Quentin Tarantino on the map, is highly irreverent, yet also oddly self-important. It broke new ground and all the rules, but at what cost? I understand that droves of film enthusiasts hold this one in high regard, but, a few flashes of brilliance aside, I feel like I’m on the outside of its universe, rather than immersed in the experience. I’m not calling it overrated, but it doesn’t have much resonance with me.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Big Fish (2003) Review

Director: Tim Burton

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Romance

Runtime: 125 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Big Fish doesn’t really look like your stereotypical Tim Burton film for the most part, but, if you look close enough, you can find his fingerprints. The story is about a dying old man, Edward Bloom (Albert Finney, and played by Ewan McGregor in the flashbacks), who recalls the events of his life in the form of fantastical tall tales. This creates conflict with his son, Will (Billy Crudup), who just wants to know what actually happened for once in his life.

This Southern Gothic-tinted movie is about people who choose to believe comforting lies over sober truths. The flick itself seems to come down on the side that the power of good storytelling should trump cold reality, something I can’t really get behind, but the feature is just so wonderful that I can’t hold this against it too much. Albert Finney’s character resembles a pathological liar, yet this is a motion picture you can’t turn away from.

I may not agree with the moral of the story, but Big Fish is beautifully-done and oh-so colorful. Between all of the memorable characters and whimsical locations is a film that consistently engages the viewer and tugs on the heartstrings. The finale is a real tearjerker. The inclusion of a Pearl Jam song (“Man of the Hour”) over the ending credits feels like a minor misstep, though. Maybe Danny Elfman’s Oscar-nominated musical score should’ve played over the end instead?

This feature defies the odds by having a somewhat episodic plot, but managing to never lose focus. It’s pretty Spielbergian in nature, so it probably shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that the project was originally going to be helmed by Steven Spielberg before Tim Burton was put in the director’s chair. Overall, this fantasy-dramedy is excellent and highly moving, even if its message doesn’t resonate with me.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Tell It to the Marines (1926) Review

Director: George W. Hill

Genre(s): Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 103 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

While he’s probably more well-known these days for his more grotesque roles, Lon Chaney actually had his biggest box office hit with 1926’s Tell It to the Marines. In this military service comedy, a tougher-than-nails American Marine sergeant, O’Hara (Lon Chaney), promises to whip undisciplined recruit “Skeet” Burns (William Haines) into shape, as both pursue Navy nurse Norma Dale (Eleanor Boardman). This still-entertaining silent film has a little something for most cinemagoers.

As mentioned earlier, a significant portion of the picture revolves around a romantic triangle, as was common in Lon Chaney movies. Both Chaney and William Haines’ characters are yearning for Eleanor Boardman, but things get complicated when Haines gets in a brawl on a Pacific island over native girl Zaya (Carmel Myers). The whole flick’s a bit of a rom-com, and the humorous elements work effectively enough.

Tell It to the Marines really kicks it into gear during the last act, though, when the Marines are dispatched to China to rescue some nurses from marauding bandits. Big-budget spectacle takes over, and we get a nice action scene involving Chaney and Haines holding a bridge over a cliff against the Chinese warlord’s (Warner Oland) forces. The third act is easily the most memorable part of the film, with its derring-do and fireworks.

Tell It to the Marines was, according to the IMDb Trivia page for the feature, Lon Chaney’s favorite role. It’s not hard to see why. Acting without his usual make-up, Chaney really shines as a tough guy with a heart of gold. His performance led to him becoming the first movie star to become an honorary U.S. Marine. That’s high praise indeed! So, if you’re a Chaney fan, this one is required viewing.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) Review

Director: Carl Reiner

Genre(s): Comedy, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The film noir spoof Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid feels like an extended sketch from a late night talk show program…and I mean that in the nicest way possible. Here, private eye Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin) “interacts” with various actors and actresses from the golden age of noir while trying to solve the mystery of the death of scientist and cheese-maker John Hay Forrest. Director Carl Reiner apparently considered this his favorite movie that he directed (at least according to the IMDb Trivia page for it).

The primary gag of this flick is that Steve Martin spends a great deal of time talking to actors and actresses of the 1940s and 1950s by having footage from their pictures ingeniously spliced into this 1980s production. We meet familiar faces, ranging from James Cagney to Kirk Douglas, from Alan Ladd to Burt Lancaster, from Humphrey Bogart to Barbara Stanwyck, from Cary Grant to Bette Davis. The joke doesn’t really get old after a while (the whole thing’s only eighty-eight minutes long), and there’s plenty of other antics to provoke laughter.

Unfortunately, the back-and-forth story of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid can feel like a mess at times. I suppose that this is true to the nature of film noir, a style of filmmaking that sometimes features convoluted plotting, but most of the feature is Martin’s character going from location to location to meet with different people. Despite this, I’d say that the movie builds up to a satisfying climax that makes the aimless-feeling nature of the plot feel worthwhile.

Quibbles about the story aside, this is one funny film. Steve Martin is both hard-boiled and hilarious at the same time and the pacing is fast. Even though I’m not the biggest fan of noir, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid tickled my funny bone fairly thoroughly. The spot-the-movie-star aspect of the movie only adds to its appeal. Do I recommend this one? Yes…yes, I do.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Soldier in the Rain (1963) Review

Director: Ralph Nelson

Genre(s): Comedy, Romance

Runtime: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Great Escape (1963) is, by far, the most famous Steve McQueen movie of 1963, but he released two other flicks – Soldier in the Rain and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) – that same year. The former of those two is a military service comedy about two American soldiers – Maxwell Slaughter (Jackie Gleason) and Eustis Clay (Steve McQueen) – wheeling and dealing, falling in love, and having each other’s backs in fights. This is a light comedy “from a simpler time,” I suppose.

The humor in Soldier in the Rain is generally gentle and fairly old-fashioned. Steve McQueen, generally known for his tough guy roles, is much lighter than usual here. The scenes on the military base successfully evoke a certain atmosphere of rigid army life meeting Jackie Gleason and McQueen’s characters’ loose, opportunity-hunting style. This feature barely has any plot at all, mostly just moving from one scenario to the next.

However, it’s not all just fun and games in Soldier in the Rain. The picture does introduce some more serious drama elements towards the end, and there is a prominent romantic subplot. This is certainly not an action movie, but it does contain an exceptional barroom brawl. This fist fight contains some striking choreography, and gives McQueen a chance to show off his inner action hero.

The friendship between the characters played by Gleason and McQueen is the centerpiece of this film. Other notable features of this comedy include its jazzy musical score from Henry Mancini, an early appearance from (pre-Batman) Adam West as “Inspecting Captain,” and an agreeable eighty-eight-minute runtime. Overall, this is a serviceable movie that provides a few laughs and some excitement from a bare-knuckle fight sequence.

My rating is 6 outta 10.