Friday, July 5, 2013

The Hench-Backs of Notre Gab

Werth: Hi,Wise!

Wise: Hi, Werth! Are you enjoying your Fourth of July vacation?

Werth: I sure am. I even found the time to squeeze in a movie between all the burgers, potato salad, and vodka-spiked lemonade.

Wise: I hope you left room for cake.

Werth: The movie was chosen by my pre-teen niece and nephew so I had to watch Despicable Me 2. While I normally avoid the kiddie set, I did find the little green multi-character Minions to be charming enough to make it worth sitting in a theater full of pint-sized film critics.

Wise: Henchmen have often been the highlight of Hollywood films. From the tough guy goons in 1930's Warner Bros. gangster pics to the colorful and sinister assassins who are out to destroy James Bond to the Crazy 88s of Tarantino's Kill Bill 1 & 2, these dastardly adjutants bring humor and horror to their attempts to take out the hero.  But no henchman is as terrifying (and weirdly compelling) as the assassin Chigurh (Javier Bardeem) in Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of the Carmac McCarthy novel No Country for Old Men ( 2007).  
A killer hired by an unnamed drug kingpin (Stephen Root) to recover $2 million from a deal gone wrong, Bardem brings the most terrifying dead eyes to the screen since Jaws.  

Werth: We're going to need a bigger pick-up truck.

Wise: Chigurh soon discovers that Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a West Texas welder and Vietnam vet, has absconded with the cash and sets off in deadly pursuit.  
Moss barely manages to stay one step ahead of the killer, narrowly escaping a gunfight in a hotel room before trying to arrange a rendezvous with his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) who tries to save his life by making a deal with the crooked, yet noble Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones).  
The final confrontation is between Chigurh and Carla Jean whose terror and anguish have made her almost as soulless as her would-be killer, and thus makes her a worthy opponent.  

Werth: I find their showdown a little anti-climactic, but then it's not really the Coen Brothers' fault. The McCarthy book ending is equally deflating.

Wise: Saddled with a bizarre haircut and only a few terse lines, Bardem fashions menace from the ridiculous which is something of a specialty of the Coens, although Bardem manages to elevate the black humor into horror.  Chigurh is nothing to laugh at, and yet the Coens deftly employ their crack comic timing in creating this monster.  
Clowns and killers may be at opposites sides of the spectrum, but they both deal in surprise, sudden reversals and gut-busting flash.  Bardem and the Coens take full advantage of this connection, and make Chigurh into one of the most deadly, yet compelling henchmen of all time.
Werth: If I had to pick my favorite movie henchman it would have to be Marty Feldman's Igor from the Mel Brooks classic, Young Frankenstein. With his strange, googly eyes, Feldman found his way into television and film with a wicked sense of humor and sly sexuality. In his short career he starred in his own television show (1968-69) and such films as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975) and Silent Movie (1976).  

But it is as Dr. Frankenstein's (Gene Wilder) not-so-attentive henchmen that Feldman really makes his mark. Based on the script written by Wilder, Young Frankenstein is both an homage and a parody of the movie Frankenstein (1931) and all of its many sequels. 
The films opens on the young Dr. Frederick Frankenstein teaching a university class and  stumbling through a demonstration of nerve functions while also fielding questions about his infamous great-grandpapa.

Wise: Undergrads can be so nosy when they're not too busy getting drunk at frat parties. 

Werth: Frankenstein discovers that he has inherited his great-grandfather's estate and heads to Transylvania to see if he can figure out what his great paw-paw was up to. Igor greets him at the foggy train station in a strange hooded tunic and tights. Feldman cuts a disturbing figure, but he soon tosses out the old stereotype of the faithful, deformed servant by mocking his master, playing out vaudeville schtick and generally rolling his wild eyes at every opportunity, like Jimmy Durante with eyes a-bugging'. Feldman's ability to mock convention is perfect. 
His looks and his "What hump?" mentality poke fun at seriousness, making us question why Dr. Frankenstein (or anyone) could be so determined to do anything as monumental as creating life. 
Feldman is only one of a cast of characters who take their characters so seriously in a ridiculous way that the film feels less like a parody and more like a funnier realization of the source material. 

What Wilder and Brooks crafted was not just a deft homage, but a comedy that flaunts the hubris of the Frankenstein myth, bringing it down to earth with slapstick, Catskills-style reverie and an Irving Berlin tune.

Wise: Maybe a tap dance routine could have rescued a certain masked man at the box office. 
Werth: Wilder is ecstatic as the manic Dr. Frankenstein, Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher needs only a pursed look to cause peals of laughter (and horse neighs), Kenneth Mars flings his arm around the set with reckless abandon as Inspector Kemp, Peter Boyle as The Monster is a scream, and 
Madeline Kahn as Frederick's anal fiance Elizabeth is nothing short of inspired. Her scene with Feldman where they first meet is an expert improvisation and watching the take where Kahn loses it is worth a look in the DVD's extras. 

Wise: So, Werth, are the idylls of Kansas tempting you to make a break from the isle of Manhattan? 

Werth: Boundless vistas, hot tubs, and firepits are tempting diversions. But I promise to make it back to New York for next week's Film Gab.


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