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MFF ’13: Mel Brooks and British Crooks

May 1, 2013

A quick dispatch from Night 2 of the Montclair Film Festival. I didn’t learn a lot I didn’t already know from the documentary Mel Brooks: Make a Noise (airing on PBS’ American Masters May 20), but I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Director Robert Trachtenberg poses some interesting questions to the writer-director of The Producers, Blazing SaddlesYoung Frankenstein and other comedy classics. For example, “When did you first become aware of Hitler?” (the Fuhrer is a recurring character in Brooks’ work, not just in “Springtime for Hitler” but also his remake of the World War II farce To Be or Not To Be with his late wife Anne Bancroft).

Brooks is unfailingly entertaining in new interviews as well as vintage clips from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The David Susskind Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show (doing The 2000 Year Old Man with Carl Reiner). And there are enlightening comments from Reiner and his son Rob as well as such former collaborators as Barry Levinson (who cowrote and played the bellhop in High Anxiety), Cloris Leachman (Young Frankenstein), Richard Lewis (Robin Hood: Men in Tights), Bill Pullman (Spaceballs), Steven Weber (Dracula: Dead and Loving It) and more. Gene Wilder, Bancroft, Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman contribute via archival interviews.

I’d never heard the story of Richard Pryor offering Brooks cocaine during their first script conference on Blazing Saddles (Mel declined, explaining “never before lunch”) and Make a Noise reminded me I haven’t seen Brooks’ second film, The 12 Chairs, so I’ll need to rectify that soon. The documentary is an amusing hour-and-a-half retrospective of Brooks’ brilliant career, including his work at Brooksfilms producing such off-brand gems as The Elephant Man, Frances, My Favorite Year and The Fly. And it disproves the title of one of Brooks’ worst films, Life Stinks. He’s had a pretty great one for 86 years and he’s still alive and well and loving it.

Later, I caught a new U.K. heist flick, generically entitled Wasteland. The feature debut of writer-director Rowan Athale, it feels overly familiar—particularly if you saw SNL‘s British crime drama parody Don’ You Go Rounin’ Roun to Re Ro a few years ago—and the accents are initially indecipherable. It’s the story of an English lad (Clash of the Titans‘ Luke Treadaway) freed from prison after a drug conviction who plots with three mates to get revenge on the thug who set him up. There’s nobody in the cast you’ll recognize aside from Timothy Spall (Harry Potter‘s Wormtail) as a possibly sympathetic cop. But as the story unspools (and your ears adjust to the actors’ tongues), you may get caught up in the hypnotic visuals and music.

Tonight I’m off to Night 3 of the MFF to see the promising revisionist Western Dead Man’s Burden. I’ll report back afterwards, pardners.

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