Zorro The Gay Blade 1981 ***

It is becoming something of a ‘thing’ for film-makers to point out their inspirations by having a movie theatre prominently placed within their work. That’s fine if, as in It Chapter 1, the point is to pin down in time the specific summer that Derry’s local cinema is showing Batman and Lethal Weapon 2.  The device feels a bit more laboured when Zack Snyder pans over a 1981 cinema showing Excalibur in Batman Vs Superman, or Todd Phillips recreates the marquee signage from the same year of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out in Joker.

Equally prominent in the same shot is Peter Medak’s Zorro The Gay Blade, a rather more neglected text that De Palma’s much frothed-over if effective thriller. Given Joker’s rejection of laughter, from clowns to Chaplin, is the suggestion that George Hamilton’s ‘zany, zexy, spectacular’ parody of the much loved swordsman signifies the death of comedy? Or could Arthur Fleck have been diverted from his murderous purpose if he’d just let a little spray-tanned self-deprecation into his life? The bottom line is that while real-world movies seem to exist in both DC and Marvel universes, it’s kind of hard to see how Zorro The Gay Blade exists in the miserablist world of Joker.

Zorro The Gay Blade certainly delivers on its title; Hamilton plays Diego, a athletic ladies man who doubles up as Zorro. An injury causes him to shirk his duties, and his flamboyantly camp brother Bunny Wrigglesworth (also Hamilton)  takes his place. Wrigglesworth prefers a whip to a sword and constructs a suit and cape combo in gold lame rather than black as he attempts to personalise the classic style of the Zorro brand.

Medak, who made The Ruling Class and has been touring with his Ghost of Peter Sellers film, was quite a craftsman, and assembles some great suppor for Hamiltont, from Ron Lieberman’s shouty villain to Lauren Hutton and Brenda Vaccarro, plus some well-staged action scenes. The stereotypes are larger than life, but not exactly crude; in fact, for 1981, they’re positively progressive.

Hamilton’s brief period as a bankable movie lead post his big Love At First Bite success ended with the muted reception for this film, but he’s in his element here, sending up his good looks and throwing himself into drag; it’s an anything for a laugh film. At a time when comic-book characters are getting so serious, it’s nice to see such an amiable, lightweight comedy, although what the over-analytical Joker fanboys will make of this as a reference to pore over is anyone’s guess.

Between Two Ferns: The Movie 2019 ****

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Is it too late for Netflix to bring the funny? With Amazon investing billions in established IP like Lord of the Rings, it seems perverse that Netflix’s latest big investment is decades-old episodes of Seinfield to complement decades-old episodes of Friends. Not that these shows aren’t great, but they’re placeholders for new comedy that’s yet to appear. Tapping into existing comedy like Joel McHale didn’t work, even though his show had some great stuff in it, so this harnessing of popular content from Funny Or Die seems like a step towards  giving Netflix an identity based on putting smiles on faces.

Zach Galifianakis has been ploughing an amusing furrow with his talk-show parody Between Two Ferns, originally Betwixt Two Ferns as he mentions in Scott Aukerman’s expanded reboot. There’s elements of Ali G as Galifianakis says and does exactly what an interviewer should not, drawing attention to himself, mis-representing his guests, and just being plain rude; there’s plenty of big names willing to show themselves as good sports. This time around, it’s pretty clear that there was an Avengers movie sending a roster of names to the set; Benedict Cumberbatch, Tessa Thompson and Brie Larson keep a straight face while names, acting talents and personal quirks are insensitively discussed.

There’s also a fresh frame; Funny Or Die boss Will Ferrell closes down the set after it gets destroyed during a sprinkler disaster that nearly drowns a game Matthew McConaughey. Galifianakis and his team head cross-country to find stars and interview them in their homes, and there’s some neatly developed sketches that turn the format on its head; a one-night stand with Chrissy Teigen leads to a troubled visit from husband John Legend. Otherwise, it’s fun to see Jon Hamm, Peter Dinklage, and perennial Netflix self-parodist Keanu Reeves allowing pot-shots at themselves; the good humour is infectious.

The shortness of the interview sections works a little against the premise, but Between Two Ferns: The Movie works far better than, say Ali G In Da House in that it stays true to the interview-based origins of the conceit. And at the centre is a strong comic character; Galifianakis is vain, downtrodden, pretentious, snarky and not as smart as he thinks. There’s mileage in the way he takes down celebrities; in an age when few interviewers pack a punch, Between Two Ferns offers fake takedowns of today’s ‘hot idiots’ in entertaining fashion.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80243600?source=35

Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster Frankenstein 2019 ****

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Actor David Harbour presumably had a blank check to cash on the back of his success in Stranger Things; it’s a shame that the actor couldn’t find anything better to do with his Netflix cash than to rest on his family laurels. Harbour has taken it upon himself to exhume footage from his father David Harbour Jr’s excellent TV production of Frankenstein; a classic show, fondly remembered, but ill-served by his son’s piece-meal handling of the footage here. Harbour’s grandfather, the great David Harbour III must surely be turning in his grave, as must Mary Shelley’s poor, beknighted creation. Of course, it doesn’t help that so many of the ideas here have been done better elsewhere; the iconic meat commercial featured here was ripped off shamelessly by Transformers star Orson Welles for his Frozen Pea performance art installation, and the abrupt commercials, plus the rickety doors and windows of the set were an obvious influence of Dan Curtis’s Dark Shadows. Even the title is a clear spin on Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; it’s hard to imagine that an actor as storied as Harbour isn’t aware of that text, or even of the IMDB itself where such information might freely be found! Still, there’s some vague amusement to be found as Harbour questions those who remember his father, with faded stars like Alfred Molina, Kate Berlant, and newcomers like Mary Wonorov and Michael J. Lerner, still remembered from the Back to the Future films. It would have been better to use Harbour’s ill gotten gains for a full restoration of The Actor’s Trunk, a much admired show given precious little screen-time here, than on this miserly cash in on the Harbour family jewels. Perhaps Harbour’s proposed sequel, tentatively pre-cancelled at Amazon Instant Now Video Today and titled Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster Frankenstein; The True Story, should be made just to set things right.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/81003981?source=35

Jane Austen’s Mafia! 1998 ***

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Writer/director Jim Abrahams was part of the team behind Airplane, Naked Gun and Hot Shots; the tide had turned against spoofs by 1998, and Mafia! was one of the last gasps of the genre. It’s an un-called for Godfather spoof, twenty years too late perhaps, but still with a few lively moments to commend it. Jay Mohr is actually pretty good in the Al Pacino role, the prodigal son returning to the deadly games of his family, with Lloyd Bridges at the Brando-style patriarch. The film is dedicated to the star, who appears frail here, yet still typically game for the indignities low-brow comedy. There are plenty of lame gags, but Mafia! is at its best when tacking the seriousness of gangster films; a rapid-fire list of ridiculous underworld names at a wedding, or an accidental shooting of a man disguised as a tree. The best of the gags are well worked; if you’ve watched all the classic ZAZ brothers comedies once too many, there’s plenty of good reasons to search this later entry out.

What’s Up Tiger Lily? 1966 ***

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It would be fair to say that Woody Allen’s 1996 comedy is not quite indicative of the quality of the career that followed; the majority of What’s Up Tiger Lily? is footage from a Japanese spy film, overdubbed with a silly plot about a recipe for egg salad. If this mixture was indigestible enough, a few performances from resistible band The Lovin’ Spoonful are thrown in to pad out the running time, and yet the result is watchable and although the gags are patchy, there’s a few cracking moments. A running gag about the hero bursting into song, the villain’s car-sickness (‘I feel nauseous!”) and a lovely moment where the protagonist recognises his mother incognito in a harem of girls. These moments reflect the scattershot with of Allen’s early writing, and even if the whole enterprise is weak, it’s got more laughs than most proper films. Even Blue Jasmine would have been considerably weakened by regular stops to enjoy the musical stylings of The Lovin’ Spoonful.

Waiting for Guffman 1996 ****

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While Spinal Tap’s brilliant lampooning of rock excess has produced a pop-cultural phenomenon, writer and director Christopher Guest’s career high is arguably his 1996 consideration of the vanity and pathos of local theatre. Guest makes Corky St Clair, a temperamental theatre director from Blaine, Missouri with delusions of grandeur, into a classic comedy character, with support from many of the same performers who made Best in Show and A Mighty Wind so enjoyable. From Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara’s startling re-imaging of Midnight at the Oasis to romantic duet A Penny for Your Thoughts, the pitch perfect rendition of am-dram is a delight in Guest’s capable hands.

OSS 117: Nest of Spies 2006 and OSS 117: Lost in Rio 2009 ***

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Long before their Oscar-winning triumph with silent pastiche The Artist, director Michel Hazanavicius and his star Jean Dujardin did a similarly excellent job on spy movies with their OSS 117 films. The European version of Austin Powers, the OSS 117 comedies take their title from Dujardin’s secret agent, tangling with Nazis while wrestling with gadgets and sporting the same kind of 60’s cool that featured in James Bond films, and also the tatty glamour of the Matt Helm franchise with Dean Martin. The OSS 117 films capture the casual sexism and racism of older films with an admirably straight face, but there’s also a clear affection for the genre. Dujardin is a charming leading man, and these films show exactly why his Hollywood career is on the up.