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The Big 2-9

Aside from the fact that this day sealed my fate as the “Never Gets a ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Teacher or Your Classmates Because School’s Out for Summer Kid,” June 28 never seemed like a terribly interesting day to be born.

Until I realized that’s also the day sublimely talented actors Kathy Bates, John Cusack, the late Gilda Radner and the late Pat “Wax On, Wax Off” Morita headed toward the light of the birth canal. June 28 also gave King Henry VIII to England (bet that’s one pregnant lady the Great Holy Aardvark wishes he could have uninseminated). And June 28 happens to be the only day every year where the month and the day are different perfect numbers*.

But really, the only reason I ever get all jacked up is because the 28th of June is when the World’s Greatest Director — the reason I love movies and the reason I have such a warped, wacko sense of humor — Mel “Lepetomane” Brooks classed up Planet Earth’s population.

This year, though, looks be far more exciting because Andy at Fandango Groovers hatched a brilliant idea: Write a post listing favorite films for every year I’ve been breathing. Later in 2010 Andy’s planning a blog event on this theme, so start thinking about your choices, readers. Without further adieu, here are my favorites from 1981-2010:

Ash will saw off your nose.

1981: “The Evil Dead” — Maybe directors did horror-comedy before Sam Raimi’s cult classic, but those movies did not feature the unstoppable Bruce Campbell as erstwhile hero Ash, who would later go on to coin the phrases “boomstick” and “hail to the king, baby.”

1982: “First Blood” — The first in the Rambo franchise, Sly Stallone’s “First Blood” combines jaw-dropping action, buckets of bloodshed and a surprisingly poignant message about the treatment of Vietnam vets in America.

1983: “The Big Chill” — College pals Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum reunite to mourn a friend’s suicide. This much acting talent on one set is a recipe for goodness.

1984: “Blood Simple” (full review) — The fact that this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film is almost as astounding as the film itself. Almost.

1985: “The Breakfast Club” — The late John Hughes showed us, in this poignant ode to real teen issues, that lurking inside everyone there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a basket case and a criminal in search of connection. And a little doobage.

1986: “Aliens” (full review) — Twenty-four years later and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains a female action hero with smarts, guts and muscles. What a novel idea.

1987: “The Untouchables” — Most gangster movies offer plenty of bloody shoot-em-ups, slick double-crosses, dark double-breasted suits and bank accounts stuffed like you wouldn’t believe. Brian De Palma’s “Untouchables” also has something else: a conscience.

Velcome to vaxwork...

1988: “Waxwork” (full review) — There are crappy films, and then there are films that revel and delight in their own crappiness. Guess which kind “Waxwork” is.

1989: “Heathers” (full review) — No matter how cruel the queen bees in your school were, they don’t hold a candle to Idi Amin wannabe Heather Chandler.

1990: “GoodFellas” (full review) — Powered by the performances of Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, “GoodFellas” set the bar for gangster movies impossibly high.

1991: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” — The follow-up to Cameron’s impressive “Terminator,” the sequel blasted the volume up to 11, boasted some thrilling chase scenes (the semi rundown is iconic) and reached the level of Whoa, I’ve Never Seen That Before! with its ice-cool villain T-1000 (Robert Patrick). 

1992: “Reservoir Dogs” (full review) — Quentin Tarantino gives the Cuisinart treatment to the traditional caper-gone-wrong and ends up making one of the most inventive films of the ’90s.

1993: “Schindler’s List” — Steven Spielberg’s sweeping, horrifying and heartbreaking retelling of the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) mission to rescue Jews during the Holocaust is emotionally punishing, but it’s a film that must be seen. It can change your life if you let it.

1994: “Pulp Fiction” (full review) — It’s got John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, a booty-shaking soundtrack and scene about Christopher Walken wearing a watch up his ass two years. That’s all you need to know. 

Will the real Keyser Soze please stand up?

1995: “The Usual Suspects” (full review) — Not only does Bryan Singer’s noirish, twisty thriller feature a killer-good ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey AND Gabriel Byrne AND Benicio del Toro AND Chazz Palminteri), “The Usual Suspects” also has the best twist ending. Ever written.

1996: “Fargo” (full review) — Dear Coen brothers: Thank you for showing me that it’s never impossible to take an old formula (best-laid plans gone to hell) and put a devious, violent spin on them. Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies

1997: “Chasing Amy” — Too few directors of romantic comedies have no interest in showing relationships as they actually are. Kevin Smith is not one of these directors. His “Chasing Amy” is raw, frank to the point of crudeness and deeply heartfelt, and it examines the problems all lovers — gay and straight — face.

1998: “The Opposite of Sex” — “The Opposite of Sex” is the best black comedy you’ve never seen. Don Roos puts the screws to the traditional narrated film formula with Dee Dee (Christina Ricci), a heroine who may be plucky but isn’t the least bit lovable. She’ll ransom your dead gay lover’s ashes and not think twice about it. 

Move Milton's (Stephen Root) desk to Storage Room B and see where that gets you.

1999: “Office Space” (full review) — Mike Judge takes a maze of cubicles and turns it into a feature-length film that’s the personification of Dante’s limbo, then sets it to a fantastic rap soundtrack. It’s good to be a gangsta.

2000: “Quills” (full review) — No other actors slips so effortlessly into the part of the villain as Geoffrey Rush can, and that mirthful, slightly evil glint in his eyes makes him the perfect (and only acceptable) choice to play the infamous Marquis de Sade.

2001: “The Believer” — Based on the true story of Dan Burros, a Jew who became a Neo-Nazi, Henry Bean’s “The Believer” looks unflinchingly at all aspects of faith and features what may be Ryan Gosling’s most gripping performance. Ever. 

2002: “City of God” — Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama plays out like an elegaic marriage of the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”  and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” capturing the bloody, grim realities of a life lived in Brazil’s rough Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela.

2003: “Mystic River” — Author Dennis Lehane understands, deep down in his soul, the rhythms of Boston’s shady, bleak underworld. Director Clint Eastwood understands the people who have fallen through the cracks. Together, “Mystic River,” about three childhood friends dealing with a murder, they make an unbeatable team.

Javier Bardem's performance is anything but bleak.

2004: “Mar adentro” (full review) — Is it possible to make a film about a quadriplegic (Javier Bardem) who wants nothing more than to die and have that film turn out to be an affirmation of life? Look to “Mar adentro” for the answer.

2005: “The Constant Gardener” — Taut political/medical conspiracy thrillers ordinarily don’t offer emotions as complex as the plotlines. But director Fernando Meirelles etches characters (Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes) who matter to each other, and so they matter to us.

2006: “The Lives of Others” (full review) — Movies about Big Brother rarely take the time to humanize the enemy, but director Henckel von Donnersmarck finds humanity even in the most ardent supporter (Ulrich Mühe) of suppressing free will.

2007: “No Country for Old Men” (full review) — Call it the Coens’ Law: Every time you think they’ve made their best movie ever, they top themselves. How they’ll top this gritty, violent and blackly funny caper is something this reviewer has gotta see.

2008: “The Dark Knight” — With “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan single-handedly revived a years-ailing franchise; in the inspired sequel — part Greek tragedy, part action flick, part sweeping character drama — he let Heath Ledger reinvent the iconic Joker in the spirit of creation.

Get in my bell-ay, Jew Hunter!

2009: “Inglourious Basterds” (full review) — In terms of sheer imagination and cojones, almost no director working today can match Quentin Tarantino, who in this misspelled epic rewrites the ending to WWII and gives cinema one of its greatest villains (Christoph Waltz).

2010: So far? “Shutter Island.” The predicted winner? “True Grit.”

*It’s my birthday and I’m giving you a math lesson. Can you say “nerd”?

No. 34: “Blazing Saddles” (1974)

“Gentlemen, please, rest your sphincters.” ~~Hedley Lamarr

I do believe, in all the wide, wide world of sports, that I have No. 6’d my way into a corner here.

Lookit: “Blazing Saddles,” as mentioned in the 10 movie facts post, played an incremental role — however demented — in my development from sullen teen to maturity-resistant adult. I have seen it upwards of 100 times. My parents and I have all but created our own language based around quotes from the film. It isn’t close to my heart; it’s in my heart. And it is much easier to review films when there is no emotional attachment involved. How do you turn fresh eyes on a film like that? I’m not sure. I can be a provincial putz that way.

So for “Blazing Saddles” we’re going to change the way we do business here at M. Carter @ the Movies. I’m going to do something a little bit different, something that suits the episodic nature of the film and something that speaks to the deep appreciation I have for comedy that not only stands the test of time but bests it. (Those unfamiliar with the film, scroll to the end for a brief plot summary.) Seeing as “Blazing Saddles” is a collection of golden comedy nuggets, allow me to lead an exploration of the 34 scenes/quotes/gags that qualify Mel Brooks’ film as one of the funniest ever made, and a staggering work of mad genius.

Excuse me while I whip this out:

34. “Mongo only pawn in game of life.”

33. The saddles are designed by Gucci. 

32. Hedley Lamarr’s (Harvey Korman) loss of Froggy in the tub, and Taggart’s (Slim Pickens) accidental game of find-Mr.-Winkie.

31. Hedley’s list of the baddies he needs to take over Rock Ridge (it includes Methodists).

30. Idiot Gov. William J. Le Petomane (Brooks) can’t get a simple harumph outta that guy.

29. “Well, it all depends on how much Vitamin E I can get my hands on.”

28. Lili Von Schtupp’s (Madeline Kahn) idea of what constitutes slipping into “something a little more comfortable.”

27. Guy dressed as Hitler: “They lose me right after the bunker scene.”

26. The French Mistake.

25. Dom DeLuise demonstrating the French Mistake.

24. Gov. Le Petomane can’t fit his pen in the inkwell (“think of your secretary”).

23. The revelation that stampeding cattle through the Vatican is villainous … and kinky.

22. “I will read from Matthew, Mark, Luke and DUCK.”

21. Mongo (Alex Karras) is not gay.

20. Lili’s entire performance at the saloon, but particularly the line “they start with Byron and Shelley / then jump on your belly / and bust your balloon.”

19. “Teutonic Titwillow” would be a killer name for a band.

18. But “Teutonic twat” would be even better.

17. Rev. Johnson’s heartfelt prayer to God using the phrase “dicking around.”

16. “Land: see Snatch.”

15. Murdered sheriffs and burned crops are acceptable, but did the cattle deserve that kind of treatment?

14. Harriet Johnson’s (Carol Arthur) voice can put the fear of the Lord Almighty in ya.

13. “We’ve gotta protect our phony-baloney jobs, gentlemen!”

12. That a quote from Nietzsche is followed by “blow it out your ass.”

11. Wed woses are so womantic.

10. Chewing gum on line is a capital offense.

9. “Goddarnit, Mr. Lamarr, you use your tongue prettier than a 20-dollar whore.”

8. Sheriff Bart’s (Cleavon Little) bait to lure two KKK thugs behind a rock.

7. The story of how The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) became a drunk (“little bastard shot me in the ass”).

6. The campfire bean chowdown/fart-a-thon.

5. Everything Gabby Johnson (Jack Starrett) mumbles.

4. None of Hedley’s henchmen see the idiocy of having a tollbooth in the middle of the desert (“somebody’s gotta go back and get a shitload of dimes”).

3. The way the whole film reveals the racism inherent in Westerns (Brooks would hate that kind of lit-theory babble, though).

2. Sheriff Bart’s “introduction” to the Town of Rock Ridge: the hold-up.

1. Taggart detailing the intricacies of what it means to “work up a no. 6” on anyone. (If anyone invites you to a No. 6 dance, turn him down.)

*Synopsis: Corrupt politician Hedley Lamarr, in an effort to wrest land from the Town of Rock Ridge, convinces the governor to appoint a black sheriff, Bart, to the all-white town, and infuriate the residents. Bart finds an ally in the washed-up, drunk Waco Kid, and they fend off Hedley and his sidekick, Taggart’s, increasing efforts to snatch their town from under them.

No. 2: “Young Frankenstein” (1974)

“For what we are about to see next, we must enter quietly into the realm of genius.”  ~~Frederick Frankenstein*

Mel Brooks is a tricky, tricky director. People rarely notice this in his films (they are too busy trying to regain bladder control lost to uncontrollable laughter), but it’s true. He hits you hard with the pratfalls and lines like “Werewolf? There wolf,” and while you’re revelling in the exquisite craziness of it all, he sneaks in things like parody and, on occasion, when the planets and the stars all align, a smidgen of (dare I say it?) satire.

Then again, parsing for subtext in a Mel Brooks creation is madness in itself. He’d have my head. Or worse, he’d (eek) crown me the first female mayor of Rock Ridge for overthinking the likes of “Young Frankenstein,” a ripsnorter of a comedy that sends up Hollywood monster movies with dazzling wit and characters like Frau Blücher, whose very name inspires terror in the hearts of horses everywhere. Because, really, aren’t those things reason enough to enjoy “Young Frankenstein,” arguably Mel Brooks’ zaniest, funniest and most beloved creation?

The answer: Yes, yes, for the love of Igor’s dear ole’ dead dad yes. There are surface-level pleasures aplenty to delight the ears, eyes and the funny bone. Ponder the setup: Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, a neurosurgeon who’s spent years trying to live down his grandfather’s infamous experiments, discovers he’s inherited the old, discredited embarassment’s castle. Even worse, this inheritance comes with a collection of oddballs so nutty only a kook like Mel Brooks could dream them up: Igor (a brilliantly comic Marty Feldman), the grandson of the elder Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant who has a perpetually shifting hump; the housekeeper, Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), whose interest in the departed doctor may have been more than professional; and Inga (Teri Garr), a blonde bombshell/lab assistant who loves rolls in the hay (literally, not figuratively). Inherited, too, are the fiery resentments of the neighboring townsfolk, who appoint Herr Falkstein (Kenneth Mars) to snoop about the castle and discover whether or not Frederick possesses the same off-the-grid mad scientist instincts his grandfather did. When Frederick’s high-maintenance wife-to-be Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) turns up unexpectedly, afraid he’s two-timing her and then certain he is when she glimpses Inga’s, uh, knockers, things get … hairy.

It’s nearly impossible to pin down what’s so great about “Young Frankenstein” because everything is great. Sounds crazy, right? Maybe so, but the movie just flat-out works. As an ensemble cast film, “Young Frankenstein” is flawless. Everyone’s in rare, fine form here, from the cameos (it takes several looks to deduce the actor playing Blindman) up to Gene Wilder, whose balance of screaming hissy fits and professional arrogance are wonderfully entertaining. Comic timing all-around is a thing of beauty, particularly as used by the late Kahn (the train station “taffeta, darling” sequence is genuis). Special praise must go to the late Feldman for going all-noble as Igor, a sly mischief maker who delights more in mocking his new employer than catering to his whims. “It’s pronounced ‘Eye-gor,'” he smugly informs Frederick, picking at the sore that is the young doctor’s last name. Such wit that Feldman had; it lights up the whole screen.

“Young Frankenstein” works on other levels as well. It’s a terrific parody of Hollywood’s monster films, poking fun at all the cliches — the creepy drafty castle! the dramatic-yet-ominous score! the shadowy secret passageway! — and the stock characters — the evil scientist, the mysterious housekeeper, the mindless monster — and taking no prisoners in the process. Yet “Young Frankenstein” also is something of a love letter to these movies, filmed in black and white with great care and attention to detail. The characters are crazy — would you expect anything less from Brooks? — but somehow still empathetic and lovingly etched. The monster (Peter Boyle) proves no better or worse than the scientist. So, sure, we laugh at these characters, but we love them, too. They make “Young Frankenstein” not just a great, timeless comedy, but a great movie period.

*It’s pronounced “Fronkensteen.”

(A special thanks to my parents, who had the good sense to introduce me to the wild, wild world of Mel Brooks at an impressionable age. Excuse me, folks. I just had to whip that out.)