What’s Opera, Doc?

(USA 1957)

“Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!”

— Elmer Fudd

Many consider What’s Opera, Doc? a masterpiece — the greatest Merrie Melodies cartoon, ever. It frequently makes “best of” lists for animated shorts, sometimes at the top.

What’s Opera, Doc? is classic dopey Elmer Fudd (Arthur Q. Bryan) hunting flippant, nonchalant Bugs Bunny (Mel Blanc), complete with trickery, potstirring, and the latter in drag. This one, however, is notable because it’s not particularly violent, and — spoiler alert! — Elmer actually catches Bugs in the end. He feels bad about it, too. To quote Bugs, “Well, what did you expect in an opera — a happy ending?”

Written by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones, What’s Opera, Doc? is an irreverent parody of composer Richard Wagner’s works, and I think I hear songs from Die Walküre. It really takes the piss out of him and high fallutin’ culture (those viking hats, egads!). It’s also a parody of the Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny formula. Its visually impressive Technicolor layouts are big and downright gorgeous, resembling a Salvadore Dalí painting at times.

For all it has going for it, though, What’s Opera, Doc? isn’t my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon. Honestly, it’s not even close. But I see why it’s highly regarded.

In 1992, the United States Library of Congress deemed What’s Opera, Doc? “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: Warner Brothers

Distribution: Warner Brothers

7 minutes
Not rated

(Vimeo) B

Madonna: Innocence Lost

(USA / Canada 1994)

“I take what I need and I move on. And if people can’t move with me, well then I’m sorry.”

— Madonna

Wow, I completely forgot about this tawdry exposé made for TV — American TV, which is even worse — chronicling Madonna’s early years in New York City. It aired on Fox in the mid-nineties, and it’s actually amazing only for how awful it is. All the stops are pulled out, and it’s a trainwreck: the overriding theme is that Madonna is an ambitious whore. OK, National Enquirer.

Based on Christopher Andersen’s 1991 biography — totally unauthorized, I add — Michael J. Murray’s script is just plain sad. Some of it is remarkably accurate, but some of it…not so much. I recognize every single interview where he culled material to tell the Material Girl’s story — in Time, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Interview, and a few other magazines. He doesn’t just lift background, he lifts dialogue. Verbatim. That opening monologue is straight from a letter to Stephen Jon Lewicki in which she begs to appear in his softcore film A Certain Sacrifice. The characters are all real people even if their names are changed: her donut shop manager (Kenner Ames), Dan Gilroy (Jeff Yagher), Camille Barbone (Wendie Malick), Mark Kamins (Mitch Roth), Seymour Stein (Don Francks), frequent collaborator Steve Bray (Ephraim Hylton), and last but not least her father, Silvio Ciccone (Dean Stockwell).

I’m mildly impressed that her mother (Jenny Parsons), shown entirely in black and white flashbacks, even comes up. And the many guys she slept with, some of them with a purpose. And that gumcracking? Brilliant!

Terumi Matthews plays a young Madonna, and to her credit she nails the megastar’s ideosynchrocies perfectly! I’ll give her that. However, the vignettes and Catholic imagery stolen straight from the video for “Oh Father” are so lame that I feel like I should say a rosary after seeing this. So should you. Don’t even get me started on where this story starts — the first MTV Video Music Awards? Really? She was already on her second album by then.

Anyway…Madonna: Innocence Lost is not flattering, but it’s still a hoot. It plays on Madonna’s bad side, like “Blond Ambition” is a bad thing. The problem is, this approach fails when you’re dealing with someone who used that very name for one of her biggest tours. Shocking? Fuck no.

With Diana Leblanc, Nigel Bennett, Dominique Briand, Tom Melissis , Christian Vidosa, Dino Bellisario, Kelly Fiddick, Gil Filar, Maia Filar, Diego Fuentes, Matthew Godfrey, Evon Murphy, Stephane Scalia, Chandra West

Production: Fox Television Studios, Jaffe/Braunstein Films

Distribution: Fox Network, RTL Entertainment (Netherlands), True Entertainment (UK)

90 minutes
Rated TV-14

(YouTube) D+

The Brady Bunch Movie

(USA 1995)

“Marcia did it again! Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”

—Jan Brady

After the announcement of Florence Henderson’s death on Thanksgiving, it seemed appropriate to honor her memory by spending some time with the character for whom she’ll always be remembered: Carol Brady. I chose not to watch episodes of the sitcom but something else she was in, and The Brady Bunch Movie fit the bill. Although she doesn’t play her iconic character here, Henderson still makes a cameo as Carol’s mother.

The Brady Bunch Movie has about as much depth as the show—less, actually. It doesn’t matter, though, because it’s a divinely groovy tribute to the series, tongue firmly in cheek. Set in the mid ’90s when it came out, the world has changed—but the Bradys, fixed in the ’70s, haven’t. The plot revolves around previously unseen shady next door neighbor Larry Dittmeyer (Michael McKean) and his underhanded plot to get the Bradys out of their home, which they don’t want to sell. Much of the humor comes from the anachronistic nature of the family, especially interesting to watch now that we’re as far in time from the movie as the movie is from the series. Again, the world has changed.

The Brady Bunch Movie captures everything lovably goofy about the series, and does so better than any other movie based on a television show. Deborah Aquila’s casting is genius; every single actor here nails his or her character’s idiosyncrasies. Shelley Long’s Carol is uncanny. Christine Taylor is a dead ringer for Maureen McCormick—it’s actually creepy. Jennifer Elise Cox is amazing as Jan, playing up Eve Plumb’s weird mannerisms and way of speaking as psychotic. Henriette Mantel acts exactly like Ann B. Davis as Alice, right down to her comic beat and the face she makes when she says her punchline. Indeed, casting other sitcom stars like McKean (Laverne & Shirley) and Jean Smart (Designing Women) as the Dittmeyers is a subtle yet wickedly snarky touch. RuPaul makes a bizarre appearance as a guidance counselor. Practically obligatory cameos by Barry Williams, Christopher Knight, and Davis are wacky and good-natured without coming off as desperate.

Director Betty Thomas keeps the pace quick and the lines flying, one right after another. The script is packed with references to quintessential episodes: Jan’s wig and glasses, Marcia’s nose, Greg’s “Johnny Bravo” song (“clowns never laughed before, beanstalks never grew”), Peter’s changing voice, Cindy’s tattling, even Davy Jones singing “Girl” with the Monkees. Fucking brilliant! The script crams an impressive number of lines from the series into an hour and a half.

The Brady Bunch Movie is a fun tribute to a show everyone knows—everyone born between the late 1950s and maybe early to mid 1980s, anyway. I laughed my ass off when I saw it during its original run, and I laughed my ass off again this time. Perhaps one day I’ll bring myself to see A Very Brady Sequel. Rest in peace, Ms. Henderson—I’ll always remember you fondly.

90 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Home via iTunes) B

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

(USA 2016)

“Do you know how hard it is to make people laugh, to tackle big issues and get big ratings? It’s so hard that people don’t do it anymore.”

—Amy Poehler introducing Norman Lear at the PEN American Center Lifetime Achievement Awards

One commentator asserts that American television consists of two periods: before Norman Lear, and after. He’s got a point. It’s easy to spot Lear’s impact: simply go to All in the Family at the dawn of the ’70s, and look backward then forward. A marked shift to socioeconomic realism is undeniable. It isn’t fair to credit him alone with that pivotal movement—James L. Brooks and Allen Burns hit the air with The Mary Tyler Moore Show four months before All in the Family—but Lear definitely ran with the idea and pushed it farther than anyone else. As the creative force behind shows like the aforementioned All in the Family, Maude, Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, even One Day at a Time and the controversial subjects they tackled, he was prime time’s Martin Scorsese to, say, Gary Marshall’s Steven Spielberg. That’s a huge accomplishment when you stop to consider that the only TV show ever to deal with abortion head-on was one of Lear’s sitcoms, and that was more than 40 years ago.

With Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady assemble a captivating picture of the man behind the curtain through clips, behind-the-scenes footage, his own readings of excerpts from his memoir Even This I Get to Experience, and an interview just for this film. Lear, who recently turned 94, is fascinatingly open and candid about the highs and lows of his personal life, his career, and what inspired him. In the film’s most touching moments, he discusses his father, what it felt like to hear an anti-Semitic speech on the radio when he was a kid, his admiration for Carroll O’Connor, and a sad incident involving his strong-willed wife. He also sings a ditty with buddies Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, which is priceless. In its most interesting moment, Good Times star Esther Rolle confronts him about his depiction of black Americans. It is, to say the least, dy-no-mite.

Comments from a number of celebrities like Jon Stewart, George Clooney, Rob Reiner, and John Amos add depth and demonstrate the reach of Lear’s work. The highlights, however, come from Lear himself. It would have been nice if the directors pushed things a little farther and did away with the dramatization of Lear as a young boy, but I can only hope I live to see the future like he does: clearly, these are the days.

91 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B



Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

(UK/USA 2016)

Absolutely Fabulous, one of my fave TV shows, was fresh, edgy, and bloody hilarious in its day—the dog’s bollocks, if you will. Stateside, it’s proven to be too much for prime time network television: ABC and FOX both abandoned plans to adapt it, the latter as recently as 2009 (http://www.tvtonight.com.au/2009/05/fox-rejects-ab-fab-remake.html). As executive producer Jon Plowman noted, “[t]he trouble with doing Ab Fab in America is that it will have to end with Edina and Saffy hugging, Patsy giving up drink and drugs, and them all hugging mum. It won’t work. It’ll be too nice.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/3153677/US-remake-for-Absolutely-Fabulous.html). Hold that thought.

Since the end of its original BBC run in 1995, Ab Fab’s few revivals have consistently fallen short. I was skeptical about a full-length movie 25 years on. While not the disaster I feared it would be, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie still isn’t the knees up full Monty I wanted.

Eddy (Jennifer Saunders), Patsy (Joanna Lumley), Saffy (Julia Sawalha), even Mrs. Monsoon (June Whitfield) are the same, which is great—who doesn’t love them? They each have some good lines and some bright moments. Pats hasn’t lost her signature deadpan snarl, and the animosity between her and Saffy is still very much alive. The problem, however, is that the world has changed, which is partly why Ab Fab doesn’t have the same impact. For one thing, Eddy and Patsy’s irrelevance is really irrelevant today. They’ve become anachronisms; their antics ring more tired and pathetic than funny after awhile. Worse, everything about their fashionable world is passé. A prominent figure in the plot is supermodel…Kate Moss? The many celebrity cameos—Jerry Hall, Jean Paul Gaultier, Dame Edna, and Joan Collins to name a few—are fun, but none of them are setting any fires these days. Aside from Jon Hamm and Rebel Wilson, the faded glory here is enough to book Hollywood Squares for a month solid.

The movie has as much substance as an episode, but it’s clearly stretched to fill the time; Ab Fab episodes were only 35 minutes for a good reason. Some of the character twists, particularly Bubble (Jane Horrocks) and Marshall (Christopher Ryan), don’t make sense. Eddy gets soft toward the end: she delivers a monologue about wanting to be loved all her life, telling Saffy she loves her. Ugh. Say that again, Mr. Plowman?

I didn’t hate Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie; I got some laughs out of it. I didn’t love it, though. I could have overlooked its shortcomings had it been funnier. As it stands, I prefer Ab Fab where it fits best: in the ’90s.

91 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) C



Live from New York!

(USA 2015)

A fortieth anniversary retrospective of NBC’s Saturday Night Live! and its rise from DIY skit show to American institution. Objective and analytical in tone, it’s more oral history than nostalgia, broaching unflattering topics like SNL‘s inherent sexism, “anti Golden Age” of the early Eighties, and historical lack of diversity. Insights from Jane Curtin, Garret Morris, Larraine Newman, Julia Louise-Dreyfus, Dana Carvey, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, Andy Samberg, and many others.

(AMC River East) B


I Am Big Bird: the Carroll Spinney Story

(USA 2014)

I Am Big Bird: the Carroll Spinney Story delivered what it promised: the life story of Carroll Spinney, who became an unlikely icon as Big Bird (not to mention Oscar the grouch). We get tidbits about his artsy mother and crabby father; his fascination with puppetry as a child; his chance meeting with Jim Henson; and nearly quitting Sesame Street during its first season because he didn’t fit in with the cast. We get archival footage and a healthy dose of nostalgia without going overboard. We also get new information; I never knew Spinney was supposed to be a passenger on the ill-fated Challenger mission in 1986, or that he has an understudy. It all adds up to a winner.

Despite everything right with this documentary, however, I left wanting more from it. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe more gossip? Dirt? A drug problem or behind-the-scenes sex? Something. I know, this is Sesame Street we’re talking about, so I accept my disappointment in the lack of any sleaze as my issue. Considering its subject matter, though, I Am Big Bird could have been more fun.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C