Four of the Fantastic: Serling, Ramis, Austen, Sondheim

Caddyshack: written by Brian Doyle-Murray, Harold Ramis, and Douglas Kenney; directed by Harold Ramis; starring Chevy Chase (Ty Webb), Bill Murray (Carl Spackler), Rodney Dangerfield (Al Czervik), Ted Knight (Judge Smalls), Michael O’Keefe (Danny Noonan), and Cindy Morgan (Lacey Underall) (1980): A classic comedy of improvisation built over a stereotypical teen coming-of-age comedy. Harold Ramis and company quickly realized that the adults were far more interesting than the teens, and that the improvisation of Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Rodney Dangerfield was the real star of the movie. Well, that and the special-effects gopher. Recommended.

Sense and Sensibility: adapted by Emma Thompson from the novel by Jane Austen; directed by Ang Lee; starring Emma Thompson (Elinor Dashwood), Kate Winslet (Marianne Dashwood), Hugh Grant (Edward Ferrars), Alan Rickman (Colonel Brandon), Gemma Jones (Mrs. Dashwood), Harriet Walter (Fanny Dashwood), Imelda Staunton (Charlotte Palmer), Hugh Laurie (Mr. Palmer), Imogen Stubbs (Lucy Steele), Greg Wise (John Willoughby), Robert Hardy (Sir John Middleton), and Elizabeth Spriggs (Mrs. Jennings) (1995): Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s visually lush adaptation of Jane Austen is a winning combination of romance and pointed social observation. The adaptation won Thompson a well-deserved screenplay Oscar. The performances are uniformly strong. Lee’s direction is painterly in composition without becoming too static in the manner of some period productions. Highly recommended.

Requiem for a Heavyweight: written by Rod Serling; directed by Ralph Nelson; starring Anthony Quinn (Louis ‘Mountain’ Rivera); Jackie Gleason (Maish Rennick), Mickey Rooney (Army), Julie Harris (Grace Miller), and Cassius Clay as Himself (1962): Adapted by Rod Serling from his own 1956 Playhouse 90 TV movie, the first original 90-minute drama ever shown live on American TV. Serling may have a didactic point to make about the boxing business, but he also gives his actors line after line of terrific dialogue. 

As aging tomato-can boxer ‘Mountain’ Rivera, veteran character actor Anthony Quinn embodies wounded, almost inarticulate pride along with a sense of honour that may yet get him killed. Jackie Gleason is also terrific in his best dramatic role, as Quinn’s beloved, treacherous manager. Mickey Rooney also surprises as Quinn’s corner-man, and Julie Harris does delicate work as an employment agency worker trying to find Quinn a job after boxing. At less than 90 minutes, this is a terse and sorrowful work. Highly recommended.

Into the Woods: adapted by James Lapine from the musical by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim; directed by Rob Marshall; starring Anna Kendrick (Cinderella), Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), James Corden (Baker), Emily  Blunt (Baker’s Wife), Tracey Ullman (Jack’s Mother), Meryl Streep (Witch), Johnny Depp (Wolf), Billy Magnussen (Rapunzel’s Prince), Mackenzie Mauzy (Rapunzel), and Chris Pine (Cinderella’s Prince) (2014): Enjoyable screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 meta-musical gives us a movie-star cast that can, mostly, sing. OK, Meryl Streep occasionally moves into under-enunciated mumblemouthedness at times, especially in her climactic song. 

The cast and the songs are witty and involving, and the musical’s exploration of fairy-tale logic hits the light and dark notes of real fairytales while also commenting on Disneyfied bowdlerizations of those fairy tales (weirdly, this is a Disney movie, with the opening logo itself commenting on the difference between Into the Woods and more normally sunny Disney fare. So much meta!). For some reason, the scenes with the vengeful giant are murky and difficult to follow, which is not necessarily a good thing when this is your climax. A couple of gruesome deaths have been either eliminated or toned down from the stage version, and the original Narrator is nowhere to be heard, so be forewarned if you’re a theatrical purist. Recommended.

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