Year of Release: 1968 Directed by Mel Brooks. Starring Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars, and Lee Meredith.
“Leo, how much of something can you sell?”
“Max, the most you can sell of anything is 100%.”
“And how much of Springtime for Hitler have we sold?”
That exchange is a perfect example of the hilarious and brilliant absurdity of Mel Brooks’ original Oscar winning screenplay for his 1968 film The Producers, an outrageous farce about the extreme lengths to which greed can take people.
The opening scene gives a perfect example of those extremes, as it simultaneously introduces and contrasts the characters of Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder). When the nervous bumbling accountant Leo arrives to file Broadway producer Max’s taxes, he walks in on Max pursuing his chief source of income: sordid sex games with octogenarian widows, from whom he collects checks made out to “cash,” always the title of his latest play. Following that awkward encounter, Max is un-phased, and Leo is so uncomfortable as to be barely functioning. Taking advantage of Leo’s insecurity in a scene that involves references to ancient Roman history, breaking the fourth wall, and Max insisting he is a victim to be pitied, Max easily half bullies and half begs Leo to do some “creative accounting” to hide the $2,000 Max embezzled from his most recent flop, after all the IRS does not care about a little bit of money like $2,000, especially when the show was a flop.
If that is not thoroughly outrageous, the next incident possibly tops it, setting the plot in motion for the entire film. When Leo says, “Under the right circumstances, a producer could make more money with a flop than with a hit,” Max is instantly sold on the idea. Assuming that the producer was a dishonest man, all he would have to do is raise one million dollars for a one night flop that costs only fifty thousand, and then he could keep the rest. The only catch is that the play would have to be guaranteed to close on its opening night. If it ran for more than one night, the backers would expect to be repaid, which would be impossible, because the play would have been oversold, thus exposing the massive fraud.
If it’s not already clear, assuming that the ex-king of Broadway Max Bialystock is a dishonest man is akin to assuming that Hitler slightly disliked the Jewish people. And Hitler will feature prominently in the worst play ever, a love letter to the dictator which will offend everyone and “close by page four,” which Max convinces Leo to co-produce with him.
In addition to lampooning Nazism, the jokes in The Producers ridicule prostitution, homosexuality, transvestitism, drug abuse, and of course, massive fraud. Obviously, the subject matter may not be to everyone’s taste, and it is not hard to understand why the film receive a morally offensive rating from the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures in 1968. However, declaring The Producers offensive misses the point of the unflattering mockery of everything and everyone in the film. The jokes take for granted that the behavior of all the characters is deeply unethical, and then it exaggerates that behavior to expose how stupid, shallow, and destructive such sinful behavior is. That is one of the best types of comedy.
The production of Max and Leo’s play, Springtime for Hitler, is abysmal. As absurd and horrifying as Max and Leo’s schemes are, nothing could prepare one for the atrocity of the production. Following in the footsteps of the rest of the film, the ten minute set piece is over-the-top absurd as it caricatures the foolishness of Max and Leo’s schemes, Nazism, sexism, and the audience’s reactions, which run the gamut from revulsion to bemusement to adoration.
Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder make the perfect comic duo as the dishonest, greedy, washed-up Broadway producer and the nervous accountant with a literal security blanket. As the irate Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, who insists Hitler had a “song in his heart,” Kenneth Mars is so off-the-wall that during production Wilder wondered if Mars was actually crazy. Mel Brooks keeps the jokes coming at a very brisk pace, and as he cuts between the vulgar jokes and horrified reactions —usually from Leo but occasionally from the audience — he reminds the viewer how preposterous this entire film is.
The Producers is only ninety minutes long, and I easily spend eighty of them laughing.
Content Advisory: Much sexual humor, including references to prostitution, homosexuality, and transvestitism; Nazi related humor; drug themed humor; and very revealing costumes. Not rated.
Suggested Audience: Adults
Personal Recommendation: A
Can you believe it has been ten years since Nolan made Batman Begins?
Year of Release: 2014 Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, and Mackenzie Foy.
Since I never published anything here, I figured there was no time like the present to share my thoughts on Interstellar, a bold and beautiful piece of filmmaking that regrettably stumbles a bit towards the end.
For anyone who does not know the premise of Interstellar, it is as follows. When the future of the earth is severely threatened with dust storms and famine, former NASA scientist and now corn famer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is chosen to lead a team of astronauts into space to search for a new planet on which mankind can survive. Staunchly opposed to this mission is Cooper’s daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy who grows up into Jessica Chastain), who fears she will never see her father again. Whether he succeeds, whether he returns home, and whether he sees his daughter again all take second place to the dazzling special effects and complex world building, until Nolan decides to shift gears in the final hour.
(Mild spoilers in the next paragraph; skip to the following one if you don’t want the ending hinted at.)
In response to the more disappointing aspects of Interstellar, I came up with a snarky dismissal which is unfair to the film’s ambition, scope, and stunning visuals, but it does convey my biggest problem with Interstellar. So here goes: apparently, it takes three hours and a black hole to accomplish what you can accomplish in five minutes with weeping angels and a TARDIS. Also, the main theme of the movie can be summarized more succinctly and just as thoughtfully by a famous Beatles’ song.
Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I really did like Interstellar. A lot, actually. It is undoubtedly Nolan’s most ambitious film to date, and to watch him reach for the stars is breathtaking. The first hour and 45 minutes were just short of sublime, and I was thoroughly captivated by the stunning imagery, Cooper’s quest, and the dynamics between him, his daughter, the head of NASA (Michael Caine), and his fellow astronauts (led by Anne Hathaway). The relationships don’t rise that far beyond those of the standard Hollywood blockbuster. The eventual outcome of the mission is kind of obvious, and there is a big twist that I found easy to predict, but none of that bothered me. I was completely sold on the film.
Then shortly before the two hour mark, it started to go off the rails. When Hathaway made a big, important speech, Nolan tried to leave behind the puzzle making and science fiction, and tackle emotional and spiritual themes which transcend all else. It didn’t work. The scenes are too forced, the dialogue is too on the nose, and the scenarios aren’t original enough to rise above generic conventions the way Nolan wanted to.
By no means is the last hour bad filmmaking, but it falls back on tired formulas after the first two hours had pushed forward boldly and beautifully. Still, I would pretty highly recommend Interstellar; its triumphs more than make up for its flaws. If the film failed to reach Saturn, it at least made it to Jupiter.
Content Advisory: Violence and peril, brief strong language. MPAA rating: PG-13
Suggested Audience: Teens and up.
Personal Recommendation: B
Disney’s recent live action film of Cinderella provides what has become — perhaps fortunately, perhaps unfortunately — a unique take on the fairytale. It is a straightforward, old-fashioned telling of the traditional story without any deconstruction, subversive twists, or rewriting of roles, all of which have become increasingly common in recent tellings of fairy stories from Wicked to Shrek to Frozen to Maleficent. (That statement is meant neither as a criticism nor as compliment, just a mere fact.)
In adapting Cinderella, director Kenneth Branagh said that he wanted to make a movie which showed kindness to be a superpower. That approach enabled him to preserve the classical elements of the fairytale and create a heroine who is intelligent and resourceful while refusing to become bitter and vindictive due to the misfortunes she suffers.
Aren Bergstrom of Three Brothers Film made an insightful comparison regarding Cinderella‘s “kindness as a superpower” theme on Twitter. Aren suggested that Branagh’s take on the classic fairytale heroine puts her in a similar league with cinematic saints like Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons and Joan in The Passion of Joan of Arc, a comparison which is not undeserved.
One recurring line in Cinderella is what Ella’s mother (Hayley Atwell) says to her daughter (Lily James) before she dies: “Be kind and have courage.” That line could also be applied to some of the most determined and most inspiring cinematic portrayals of saints from the past century.
In 1928 Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, gave audiences what is possibly the ultimate cinematic example of a suffering servant. Comprised primarily of long takes and still close-ups, Dreyer’s film dwells on the sufferings of Joan through her trial and martyrdom, and with evocations of Biblical imagery, such as a crown of thorns and a lamb led to the slaughter, the film clearly suggests that Joan’s sufferings are a way for her to partake in the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Throughout her tribulations, Joan of Arc, much like Branagh’s Cinderella, never becomes bitter or angry toward her persecutors. Sorrowful and fearful, yes, but both of them face their sufferings which dignity and all the courage they can muster (which must be pointed out, is far harder for Joan as she is being tortured and threatened with death). After their worst trials, both of them receive a gift of grace which brings them to a new and better home, something which is also true for the following examples.
Finally, I am sure this is a coincidence, but even if this pose is a common villain expression, the similarity between these shots of Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine and Eugene Silvain as Bishop Pierre Cauchon (Joan of Arc’s chief persecutor) is worth pointing out.
Another cinematic saint who has even more in common with Branagh’s Cinderella is Bernadette Soubirous as played by Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette (1943). Bernadette may have come from a loving and supportive family, but her frail health caused her much pain throughout her life, pain which she always bore courageously as she treated everyone with love and kindness, even when she least wished to. On top of that, her visions of the Blessed Mother asking for a chapel to be built were received with skepticism by a couple of the religious authorities and outright disdain and threats by the town magistrates. The Song of Bernadette suggests that one reason the magistrates bully and threaten a young, defenseless girl is that in secular and agnostic post-revolution France, the officials did not care to see a mass-hysteria over what they viewed to be an antiquated belief system.
To my knowledge, there has been no backlash against Cinderella, but like Bernadette called attention to something which many thought of as passé, Cinderella portrays a world and style of storytelling steeped in classicism that noticeably contrasts our increasingly cynical postmodern culture.
If Robert Bolt’s brilliant screenplay for the 1966 A Man for All Seasons does not constitute one of the most inspiringly quotable movies ever, then I don’t know what would. Cinderella‘s screenplay by Chris Weitz is not on the same level as that of A Man for All Seasons, but there is one line that captures Cinderella’s bravery and compassion, which she shows to everyone, even her step-family, even after they have been unusually cruel toward her. That line is, “They treat me as well as they’re able,” and it expresses a similar sentiment to the final words spoken by Thomas More after he has been found guilty of treason via an obvious perjury.
I am the King’s true subject, and pray for him and all the realm. I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm. And if this be not enough to keep a man alive, in good faith I long not to live. I have, since I came into prison, been several times in such a case that I thought to die within the hour, and I think Our Lord I was never sorry for it, but rather sorry when it passed. And therefore, my poor body is at the King’s pleasure. Would God my death might do him some good.
Sophie Scholl may not be a canonized saint of the Catholic Church, but there can be little doubt that she is in heaven. As an active member of the White Rose, an underground resistance group to the Nazis, she was executed along with her brother Hans for treason against the Third Reich. Their arrest and trial are dramatized in the 2005 film Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. The film primarily focuses on Sophie, and the young protagonist is another example of a heroine who remains dignified and courageously kind in the face of adversity which can often seem inhuman.
One of the most noticeable similarities between Cinderella and Sophie is that both of them choose not to hold a grudge against those who cause their suffering. Indeed, Sophie’s calmness as she is interrogated takes an admirable level of self-control, much like Cinderella’s final action in Branagh’s film. Even when they are imprisoned unjustly, both women care for others who are worse off than they. Finally, both also have the humility to realize when they need help and spiritual guidance from someone else and accept it.
Although the film is a fairytale rather than a dramatization of an historical event, Cinderella features a protagonist with similar traits to some of the most dignified and determined saints who have graced the silver screen. However, it is fitting that a fairytale should continue this characterization. As I’ve said before, at a fundamental level, fairytales are morality tales for children. In opting for a classical retelling of Cinderella, with its saintly protagonist, Branagh’s film lauds two virtues which are found in some of the most famous cinematic portrayals of saints, two virtues which do have a sort of superpower to carry one through suffering to a new and better world: courage and kindness.
A riveting documentary about lying, why we lie, and how much we lie that is thus far my favorite film of 2015.