Film Review: The Elephant Man (1980)

Release Date: October 2nd, 1980 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: David Lynch
Written by: Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, David Lynch
Based on: The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences by Frederick Treves; The Elephant Man: A Study In Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu
Music by: John Morris
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Hannah Gordon, Freddie Jones, Michael Elphick, Dexter Fletcher, Kenny Baker

Brooksfilms, Paramount Pictures, 124 Minutes

Review:

“I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!” – John Merrick

Few motion pictures are truly perfect. This is one of those few.

As far as I’m concerned, this is still the greatest thing that David Lynch has ever done. And while I like his visual style and artistic quirkiness, I’m not a big fan like many other film aficionados are.

That being said, this is his most normal picture. He doesn’t get overly bizarre and lost in trying to put his own dreams to celluloid. Here, he has a real story to tell and given a more defined framework, I think he excelled as a director with this movie above all of his others.

What’s strange about that, is that this is only his second feature film after the absolutely bonkers, shrill and disturbing nightmare known as Eraserhead.

The success of this film led to Lynch getting the offer to direct Return of the Jedi, which he turned down, as well as 1984’s Dune, which I like but ended up being such a bad experience for Lynch that he pretty much quit mainstream movies and went back to making bizarre, personal art films more akin to what he did with Eraserhead and his short films before that.

Anyway, this is a review of The Elephant Man and not a review of Lynch’s career.

I love that this was presented in black and white, as it gives it a truly timeless feel and it generates the same sort of aesthetic as many of the great classic horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. It also has the same sort of cinematography, as it employs a chiaroscuro visual style with high contrast between light and shadow.

Given the film’s setting and the makeup of the title character, this visual style gives it a real majestic, classic cinematic feel that probably wouldn’t have been possible if this was released in color. It helps set the mood with the more horrific elements, while also giving the film a quality of old world naivete, which is important in allowing the audience to connect to the pure innocence of Merrick, the Elephant Man.

The picture is stupendously acted. Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt are absolute perfection in this and you really fall in love with both men through this incredibly emotional and very painful journey. But you also feel their emotion to the bone when the best parts of humanity find a way to outlast the worst parts. This is a film that is just as much about the darkness of humanity as it is about humanity’s light. That’s probably another reason why presenting this in black and white is so effective.

There are terrible human beings in this movie and frankly, it’s impossible to watch this and not be emotionally effected by that darkness. This is a really hard film to experience because of that but ultimately, a positive light does push the darkness back and while the ending is tragically sad, it’s also strangely satisfying knowing that the film’s subject left on his own terms in the only place he truly felt at home.

That being said, for me at least, this is one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had with a movie. It’s not something I can go back and watch often because it really does drain on your soul, even with the mostly positive outcome.

I have no idea what it is about this film that makes it a legitimate masterpiece. I think it’s simply a perfect storm of everything just working together, wonderfully.

The Elephant Man is truly cinematic magic in how it can give you both the worst of human nature and the best. It is an astounding, exhilarating and terrifying experience.

And again, it’s motion picture perfection.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: David Lynch’s earlier work, as well as other top notch period dramas of its era.

Film Review: SolarBabies (1986)

Also known as: Solarfighters, Solar Warriors (alternative titles)
Release Date: November 26th, 1986
Directed by: Alan Johnson
Written by: Walon Green, Douglas Anthony Metrov
Music by: Maurice Jarre
Cast: Richard Jordan, Jami Gertz, Jason Patric, Lukas Haas, James Le Gros, Claude Brooks, Peter DeLuise, Peter Kowanko, Adrian Pasdar, Sarah Douglas, Charles Durning, Frank Converse, Terrence Mann, Alexei Sayle, Bruce Payne, Willoguhby Gray

Brooksfilms, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 94 Minutes

Review:

“It’s an odd name for a skateball team, don’t you think? “Solarbabies.” Too soft, not menacing enough. Why do you suppose they chose it?” – Grock, “They don’t seem to need anything more menacing, do they? They always seem to win.” – The Warden

Researching this movie for this review, I discovered that Mel Brooks was the executive producer on this. Somehow I must’ve always missed that. Then again, I hadn’t seen this since the early ’90s when it would pop up on TV from time to time.

I used to really like this movie, despite its overabundance of flaws. Seeing it now, I’d say it’s less palatable than it was when it was more current, however, it’s still got charm and a really likable cast of young people, most of whom would go on to have memorable careers.

The film follows a group of teens and a younger kid that escape from a dystopian juvenile prison. They also befriend an alien orb that exhibits some special powers. The majority of the film deals with these kids being on the run from the fascist military group that is led by Richard Jordan, who I most remember as the obsessed Sandman that hunted Michael York in 1976’s Logan’s Run. I’ve always liked him since that film and seeing him in a similar role, albeit with an army at his disposal, is pretty enjoyable. This also features Sarah Douglas, as a secondary villain.

The special effects are pretty underwhelming, even for the time, but some things did hold up well. I love the matte painting work used for the landscapes and the effects sequence where the teen’s hand dissolves into bone and ash looks really damn cool.

The film’s score is a mixed bag but more on the negative end of the spectrum. It’s mostly just cheesy synth tracks that are repetitive and pounding. There’s a pop track or two, which livens things up but the music drags the film down quite a bit due to just how generic and basic it is.

One thing I do like is that this has a very spaghetti western vibe to it. Since it is mostly filmed in Spain, it really reflects the look of those deserts. It actually fits well within the slew of Spanish and Italian Mad Max ripoffs from the decade. I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually used some of the same props and set pieces from some of those films, due to the similar dystopian atmosphere.

While this has a 4.8 out of 10 on IMDb, it’s a better movie than that. I understand why the general public would look down on it and rate it as below average but it’s got character, it’s got heart and it’s got a rare youthful energy that is missing from similar post-apocalyptic films of the era.

Plus, it’s got Alexei Sayle from The Young Ones in it.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: other cheesy ’80s sci-fi movies.

Film Review: Spaceballs (1987)

Also known as: Planet Moron (working title), Spaceballs: The Video (video box title), Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs (Germany)
Release Date: June 24th, 1987
Directed by: Mel Brooks
Written by: Mel Brooks, Ronny Graham, Thomas Meehan
Music by: John Morris
Cast: Mel Brooks, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Bill Pullman, Daphne Zuniga, Dick Van Patten, George Wyner, Joan Rivers (voice), Michael Winslow, John Hurt (cameo), Jim J. Bullock, Ronny Graham, Leslie Bevis, Rudy De Luca, Dom DeLuise (voice), Stephen Tobolowsky, Robert Prescott, Rick Ducommun, Tim Russ, Tony Cox

Brooksfilms, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 96 Minutes

Review:

“What’s the matter, Colonel Sandurz? Chicken?” – Dark Helmet

I’ve been on a Mel Brooks kick, as of late. I’ve also been irritated with modern Star Wars shit. So I figured I’d go back and revisit Spaceballs, as it is a much better Star Wars movie than anything we’ve gotten in the last few years.

Well, it isn’t really a Star Wars film, it is a parody of the Original Trilogy, as well as some other sci-fi franchises like Star TrekAliens and Planet of the Apes, but it feels more consistent with the things I love about Star Wars than anything Disney has done, except for Rogue One.

Mel Brooks was the master of parody and he arguably lost his touch after this film but he was still on his A-game when he crafted this.

The thing that this film really has going for it is the cast. Brooks was perfect as always but it was cool seeing him ham it up with Rick Moranis and the inclusion of John Candy was great. Bill Pullman really stood front and center and carried the picture on his back. And that’s not to take anything away from the comedic actors, again, they were superb. Pullman had a certain panache and command of the screen when he was center stage and he’s really the star of the picture.

I also liked Daphne Zuniga as the princess and Joan Rivers as the voice of her robot sidekick, essentially a female C-3PO. You also have a lot of cameos and small parts for other well-known comedians and Brooks regulars, all of whom leave their mark.

This movie is hysterical if you love Brooks, Candy and Moranis. It’s certainly ’80s mainstream humor and it does feel a bit dated but it is a comedy classic in the same vein and style of Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles.

Plus, if you are a fan of the massive sci-fi franchises of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, then you’ll enjoy this even more.

This is a solid example of how to do a parody film, which in this day and age, seems like a lost art.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: The original Star Wars trilogy, as well as the Mel Brooks classics: Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles.

Film Review: The Producers (1967)

Also known as: Mel Brooks’ The Producers (complete title), Springtime for Hitler (alternate title)
Release Date: November 22nd, 1967 (Pittsburgh premiere)
Directed by: Mel Brooks
Written by: Mel Brooks
Music by: John Morris
Cast: Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, Kenneth Mars, Dick Shawn, Lee Meredith, William Hickey, Christopher Hewett, Mel Brooks (voice)

Embassy Pictures, 88 Minutes

Review:

“How could this happen? I was so careful. I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?” – Max Bialystock

I have seen just about every Mel Brooks film, as well as the remake of The Producers, the stage show and the season of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry was starring in the play. But I have never seen the original.

Being a fan of early Mel Brooks movies and Gene Wilder, I’m surprised it took me this long to get to the film but I spend a lot of time watching complete dreck because I review a lot of obscure movies, some of which I discover should remain obscure and mostly unknown.

Anyway, I was glad to see this pop up on FilmStruck because I’ve always wanted to watch it and because I needed something funny and entertaining to get me out of the funk I was in after a half dozen horrible pictures.

Quite frankly, this is one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. It is in the upper echelon of all comedy for me and right up at the top of the list of Mel Brooks’ best. This and Young Frankenstein take the cake for me but it’s hard to decide between the two.

What makes this film unique in comparison to Brooks’ most famous work, is that it isn’t parody. This is an original story and it showed that Brooks can make comedy gold outside of just making fun of genre tropes.

Plus, the superb talent of Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel is on full display here, as both men play off of each other so well, they almost have a presence similar to other great duos like Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello and well… Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.

The cast is also rounded out by other hilarious performances. Kenneth Mars is hysterical, as is Dick Shawn. In fact, Shawn really steals the show in the few scenes he has.

This is a rather short film, at just shy of 90 minutes, but it packs a lot of laughs and energy into that time.

The Producers is absolutely one of the greatest things that Mel Brooks has ever done. It has held up exceptionally well and deserves its status as a true comedy classic.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: Other early Mel Brooks films: Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles.

Film Review: Young Frankenstein (1974)

Release Date: December 15th, 1974
Directed by: Mel Brooks
Written by: Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder
Based on: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Music by: John Morris
Cast: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Kenneth Mars, Madeline Kahn, Gene Hackman

20th Century Fox, 105 Minutes 

Review:

I was fortunate enough to see Young Frankenstein on the big screen this past weekend thanks to one of my local theaters being awesome and featuring films offered by Flashback Cinema. Being that I am a pretty big Mel Brooks fan, it was certainly a treat. Also, the only Brooks film I had ever seen in the theater before this was Dracula: Dead and Loving It. That was a tragedy that needed to be rectified.

I am also a bigger fan of the Universal Monsters franchise. While this isn’t a film put out by Universal, parodying itself, it still is a wonderful comedic homage to those films and it’s pretty cool that 20th Century Fox put up the cash to make it.

Written by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, from a humor standpoint, it seems to have a bit more Wilder in the script. The great thing about the man, is he knew how to write comedy for himself. Brooks, on the other hand, was very good at making things work well for an ensemble of hilarious characters. He also makes completely absurd situations work. Together, these two men had a perfect marriage with the script for Young Frankenstein.

The film is as close to perfect as a parody movie can get. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of parody films, except for those put out by Mel Brooks because he just has the ability to capture the spirit and magic of the films he pokes fun at. Brooks’ parodies are more like an old school classic Dean Martin Roast of movies he loves, where the modern parodies done be filmmakers (with less than a tenth of Brooks’ talent) are just an atrocious string of racist, dick, fart and fat jokes that could be better executed by first graders on a playground. Needless to say, Brooks has mastered an art and no one else has even come close to his level. Young Frankenstein is one of the Brooks films where this is completely apparent.

Young Frankenstein is magic. It recaptures the look and feel of the James Whale Frankenstein pictures of the 1930s almost flawlessly. It is impressive how authentic the sets and props feel. The cinematography is a near match of those films, especially the lighting and the tone. The use of contrast creates a great sense of depth that makes it feel like those old classic horror pictures. It is also worth mentioning that the great score really adds a lot of character to the film’s presentation and helps to enhance the visual side of things.

This is one of the absolute best roles that Gene Wilder has ever played. The same can be said for Teri Garr and Marty Feldman. Peter Boyle has had a weird mix of fantastic and different roles over the years but he’s perfect in this as the Creature. Madeline Kahn is also stupendous and utterly hilarious. The one character I have always loved though, is the Inspector played by Kenneth Mars.

Young Frankenstein is a great movie and certainly a classic that deserves its fanfare. I think its biggest strength is its story. While it parodies the many Frankenstein pictures put out by Universal in their horror heyday, it is its own unique tale backed by complete hilarity and a talented cast and director.

Rating: 9/10