RIP, Carl Reiner


I just heard that Carl Reiner has died.  He was 98 years old and he was one of the funniest men who ever lived.

By creating The Dick Van Dyke Show, Reienr redefined the American sitcom and made writing comedy seem like the most wonderful and rewarding job that someone could hope to have.  Not only do you get to be funny 24 hours a day but you also get to marry Laura Petrie.  In many ways, Reiner was responsible for a generation of writers flocking to New York City with dreams of writing for Saturday Night Live and Norman Lear.

Reiner was also an actor, a film director, and an always-entertaining talk show guest.  For many, he will also be forever known as the man who interviewed the 2000 Year Old Man.  In these interviews, Reiner asked questions to a 2000 year old man, who was played by Mel Brooks and who would largely improvise his answers.  This was a skit that Reiner and Brooks developed (mostly as an inside joke) while they were both writing for Your Show Of Shows.  It went on to become a beloved comedy classic and it is often cited as being the ideal comedy sketch.  Though Reiner played the “straight man” in the 200 Year Old Man routine, his contribution was just as important as Brooks’s.  Brooks may have gotten the most laughs with his improvised answers but Reiner always instinctively knew the right questions to ask.

Here they are performing it in 1967:

Carl Reiner, R.I.P.

Fatal Instinct (1993, directed by Carl Reiner)


Ned Ravine (Armand Assante) is a cop who is also a lawyer.  His shtick is to make an arrest and then defend that person in court.  He’s married to Lana (Kate Nelligan), who is having an affair with a mechanic named Frank (Christopher McDonald).  Lana has taken out a life insurance policy on Ned, one that has a triple indemnity clause.  If he’s shot on a northbound train and then falls off and drowns in a nearby stream, Lana and Frank will make a lot of money.  However, Lana and Frank are not the only people who want to kill Ned Ravine.  One of Ned’s former clients, Max Shady (James Remar), has just been released from prison and is seeking revenge.  The main reason why Ned hasn’t figured out that everyone is trying to kill him is because he’s been distracted by the seductive Lola (Sean Young), a client who asked him to look over some legal papers and who has an improbable connection to Lana.

As you might guess by the plot and Carl Reiner’s directorial credit, Fatal Instinct is a spoof of detective movies, with the majority of the jokes being inspired by Basic Instinct, the remake of Cape Fear, Double Indemnity, and Body Heat.  How much you laugh will depend on how well you know those films.  There’s a scene in Ned’s office where Ned notices that Lola isn’t wearing panties.  He helpfully produces a pair from inside his desk and hand them to her.  In 1994, that scene was funny because Basic Instinct and whether or not Sharon Stone was aware of how her famous interrogation scene was being filmed were still a huge part of the pop cultural conversation.  Today, it might just seem weird.

Carl Reiner has always been an uneven filmmaker and that trend continues in Fatal Instinct, where he tries to do to erotic thrillers what Mel Brooks did to westerns and Airplane! did to disaster films.  Unfortunately, Reiner often gets bogged down by the film’s plot, which should really be the last thing anyone should be worried about when it comes to a spoof like this.  Some of the jokes are funny and some of them aren’t but, because Reiner doesn’t duplicate the joke-every-minute style of a film like Airplane!, there’s a lot more time to think about the jokes that fall flat.

Fatal Instinct does have a good cast, featuring a lot of actors who probably should have become bigger stars than they did.  I especially liked Kate Nelligan’s and Christopher McDonald’s performances as the two triple indemnity conspirators.  Sherilyn Fenn plays Ned’s loyal secretary and seeing her give such a fresh and likable performance in this otherwise uneven film makes me regret even more that, outside of Twin Peaks, she never really got the roles that she deserved.

The Dork Knight: Steve Martin in DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (Universal 1982)


cracked rear viewer

Quick, name a film noir that stars Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, Vincent Price, and… Steve Martin? There’s only one: 1982’s DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, the second collaboration between that “wild and crazy guy” Martin and comedy legend Carl Reiner. I remember, back in 1982, being dazzled by editor Bud Molin’s seamless job of incorporating classic film footage into the new narrative while simultaneously laughing my ass off. Things haven’t changed – the editing still dazzles, and I’m still laughing!

Martin and Reiner’s first comedy, 1979’s THE JERK, was an absurdist lover’s delight, and this time around the two, along with cowriter George Gipe, concocted this cockeyed detective saga after combing through old black and white crime dramas (we didn’t call ’em film noir back then) and cherry picking scenes to build their screenplay around. Martin plays PI…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (dir by Norman Jewison)


russians_are_coming

Earlier tonight, I watched a 1966 film called The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.  

It’s a cheerful comedy about what happens when the captain (played by Theodore Bikel) of a Russian submarine decides that he wants to take a look at the United States.  Though he was only planning to look at America through a periscope, he accidentally runs the submarine into a sandbar sitting near Gloucester Island, which itself sits off the coast of Massachusetts.  The captain sends a nine man landing party, led by Lt. Yuri Rozanov (a youngish Alan Arkin, making his film debut and receiving an Oscar nomination for his efforts), to the island.  Their orders are simple.  Yuri and his men are too either borrow or steal a boat that can be used to push the submarine off the sandbar.  If they run into any locals, they are to claim to be Norwegian fisherman.

Needless to say, things that don’t quite go as planned.  The first Americans that Yuri and his men meet are the family of Walt Whitaker (Carl Reiner), a vacationing playwright.  Walt’s youngest son immediately identifies the Norwegian fisherman as being “Russians with submachine guns.”  When Walt laughingly asks Yuri if he’s a “Russian with a submachine gun,” Yuri produces a submachine gun and promptly takes Walt, his wife (Eva Marie Saint), and his children hostage.

Yuri may be a Russian.  He may officially be an enemy of America.  But he’s actually a pretty nice guy.  All he wants to do is find a boat, keep his men safe, and leave the island with as little drama as possible.  However, the inhabitants of the island have other plans.  As rumors spread that the Russians have landed, the eccentric and largely elderly population of Gloucester Island prepares for war.  Even as Police Chief Mattocks (Brian Keith) and his bumbling assistant, Norman Jonas (Jonathan Winters), attempt to keep everyone calm, Fendall Hawkins (Paul Ford) is organizing a militia and trying to contact the U.S. Air Force.

Meanwhile, Walt’s babysitter, Allison (Andrea Dromm) finds herself falling in love with one of the Russians, the gentle Alexei Kolchin (John Phillip Law).

As I said at the start of this review, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is a cheerful comedy, one with a rather gentle political subtext, suggesting that the majority of international conflicts could be avoided if people got to know each other as people as opposed to judging them based on nationality or ideology.  There’s a rather old-fashioned liberalism to it that probably seemed quite daring in 1966 but which feels rather quaint today.  Sometimes, the comedy gets a bit broad and there were a few times that I found myself surprised that the film didn’t come with a laugh track.  But overall, this is a well-acted and likable little movie.

As I watched The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (and, as someone who is contractually obligated to use a certain number of words per review, allow me to say how much I enjoyed the length of that title), I found myself considering that the film would have seemed dated in 2013 but, with all the talk of Russian hacking in the election and everything else, it now feels a little bit more relevant.  Not a day goes by when I don’t see someone on twitter announcing that the Russians are coming.  Of course, if the film were released today, its optimistic ending would probably be denounced as an unacceptable compromise.  Peaceful co-existence is no longer as trendy as it once was.

Another interesting thing to note about The Russians Are Coming, The Russians are Coming: though the film was written by William Rose (who also wrote another example of mild 1960s feelgood liberalism, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner), it was based on a novel by Nathaniel Benchley.  Benchley was the father of Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws.  It’s easy to see the eccentrics of Gloucester Island as distant cousins of the inhabitants of Amity Island.

As previously stated, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming was nominated for best picture but it lost to the far more weighty A Man For All Seasons.