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BRIAN VINER tribute to Fred Willard with a look back at three of his greatest films

Best In Show (Amazon Prime, 12)

Verdict: Barking parody

Review:

A Mighty Wind (Amazon Prime, 12)

Verdict: a hurricane of folly

Review:

Waiting for Guffman (Amazon Prime, 12)

Verdict: parody in small towns

Review:

In that parallel universe without Covid-19, the 73rd Cannes Film Festival would end this weekend and I would return home with square eyes, but happily, after seeing two, three, sometimes four films a day, for ten days.

Instead, I’m locked out and trying to keep you updated on the best new releases on streaming platforms. It happens that there will soon be a rich harvest. June is bursting with original offers. But since this is a lackluster week, I thought I’d revise three classics instead in tribute to Fred Willard, the great friendly giant of American comedy, who died last week, aged 86.

Willard was not a household name in the UK. But if you’ve seen the Anchorman movies, or Rob Reiner’s masterful parody of 1984 rock documentaries, This Is Spinal Tap, you’ve known his face and laughed at his silly one-liners. He has also been a regular on American TV, on hit shows such as Everybody Loves Raymond and Modern Family.

Above all, Willard was an improvised genius, never more hilarious than in a series of largely improvised mockumentaries created by Christopher Guest.

If you've seen the Anchorman movies or Rob Reiner's masterful parody of 1984 rock documentaries, This Is Spinal Tap, you've known Fred Willard's face and laughed at his dead one-liners

If you have seen the Anchorman movies, or Rob Reiner is masterfully 1984 parody of rock documentaries, This Is Spinal Tap, then you will have known Fred Willard's face and laughed at his deadpan one-liners

If you’ve seen the Anchorman movies or Rob Reiner’s masterful parody of 1984 rock documentaries, This Is Spinal Tap, you’ve known Fred Willard’s face and laughed at his dead one-liners

Each is a true feast of comedic observation and cherished folly, and this week my family and I are happily eating them.

If you have access to Amazon Prime, you can too. In the absence of a real antidote to the coronavirus, I cannot recommend a better tonic.

Best In Show (2000) is incomparably funny. It’s a glorious parody of dog shows and the kind of owners she considers more important than life itself, catering for the needs of their pets like the anxious servants of a demanding monarch.

For example, Parker Posey plays the barkingly high-strung Meg, who becomes hysterical when her pug’s favorite hug, Busy Bee, goes missing. Although he knew that something like that would bring up a lot of comedic material, when planning the movie, Guest wasn’t sure how the third company, the Crufts type, would unfold. It had to seem credible real, but how could they make that as funny as anything else?

The answer was to let Willard off the line as a TV co-commentator, Buck Laughlin, a somewhat silly tuxedo-wearing sports anchor, out of his comfort zone and making ever more inappropriate suggestions to the resident dog show expert played by an admirable po face Jim Piddock.

Willard was an improvisational genius, never more hilarious than in a series of largely improvised mockumentaries created by Christopher Guest

Willard was an improvisational genius, never more hilarious than in a series of largely improvised mockumentaries created by Christopher Guest

Willard was an improvisational genius, never more hilarious than in a series of largely improvised mockumentaries created by Christopher Guest

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to dress up the participants? Wouldn’t the bloodhound benefit from a Sherlock Holmes twin set of deerstalker and pipe?

Willard always played the same kind of character in those guest films: genius, gauche, occasionally lewd, always unspeakably rude.

He’s peroxidizing music producer Mike LaFontaine in the equally brilliant A Mighty Wind (2003), a sort of folk music version of Spinal Tap, in which three semi-successful 1960s folk acts re-form to celebrate the life of their late manager, Irving Steinbloom .

LaFontaine pauses a rehearsal to suggest The New Main Street Singers that their wholesome shanty could with some literary gravitas, inspired by ‘pirate captain’ Moby Dick, who ‘chases a big whale’, then argues that they could all be drenched in water in the song.

“Even the ladies,” he adds, cue a suggestive whisper in the ear of the group’s leader (John Michael Higgins). It is all the more fun to be completely improvised.

The same comedic actors – Willard, Higgins, Posey, Piddock, Harry Shearer, Bob Balaban and Eugene Levy among them, as well as Guest himself – repeatedly appear in these fake documentaries, which is part of the fun of seeing them up close.

In Waiting For Guffman (1996), Willard plays one of the residents of Blaine, a small Missouri town known as “the crutch capital of the world,” performing a musical to mark the 500th anniversary (the 150th anniversary). (as if you didn’t know) about Blaine’s founding by the eponymous Blaine Fabin (who smelled salt in the air and thought he had reached the Pacific).

Guffman is the Broadway producer who invites them to consider a New York transfer despite their lack of talent. The movie is a little less hilarious than the other two, but still a joy. Whether you’ve heard of Willard or not, you won’t regret a triple header this weekend.

From Wizard to Woody: Brian Viner’s Top 100 Movies (Part 9)

Here are the penultimate ten in the list of my 100 favorite English-language movies – let me know at [email protected] if you agree, or better yet, disagree.

20 The Wizard Of Oz (1939)

Permanently enchanting and the greatest screen fantasy ever made for my money. It’s also the most-seen movie of all time, but it missed the best movie at the Academy Awards of 1940, led by director Victor Fleming’s other contender, Gone With The Wind.

The animation that Pixar launched, so a film of cultural significance and humor, charm and a lot of fun. What a pleasure it was to meet Woody, Buzz Lightyear and co 25 years ago

The animation that Pixar launched, so a film of cultural significance and humor, charm and a lot of fun. What a pleasure it was to meet Woody, Buzz Lightyear and co 25 years ago

The animation that Pixar launched, so a film of cultural significance and humor, charm and a lot of fun. What a pleasure it was to meet Woody, Buzz Lightyear and co 25 years ago

19 West Side Story (1961)

Steven Spielberg will give us his remake later this year. If it’s even half as good as this lavish, pitch-perfect adaptation of the Broadway musical, itself inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet, of course, it’s worth seeing. And this one won the best movie.

18 Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949)

The best Ealing comedy ever, the best Alec Guinness movie ever, and the perfect treat for a closing afternoon as chippy charmer Dennis Price slams off eight distant relatives (all played by Guinness) in a cowardly pursuit of an inheritance.

17 There Will Be Blood (2007)

Here’s an indication of what’s not in my top ten – for me, this is the best movie of our century to date. Daniel Day-Lewis is extraordinary as a ruthless oiler Daniel Plainview, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s excitingly unique masterpiece.

16 The Sound Of Music (1965)

OK, so it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (a drink with jam and bread). But I’m not ashamed to admit that I love every cheap minute, or that I queued for over an hour at the Venice Film Festival last year to hear Julie Andrews reminisce.

15 Casablanca (1942)

I revisited it for the first time in ten years, afraid in case it wasn’t dated well. Good news! Despite being black and white, it is completely evergreen. Bogart, Bergman, romance, suspense, even comedy – for me it rivals The Adventures Of Robin Hood as the core of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Arthur Penn's photo changed the cinematic landscape. Inexpressibly stylish, unrelentingly violent and one of the greatest films of all time

Arthur Penn's image changed the cinematic landscape. Inexpressibly stylish, unrelentingly violent and one of the greatest films of all time

Arthur Penn’s image changed the cinematic landscape. Inexpressibly stylish, unrelentingly violent and one of the greatest films of all time

14 Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969)

I am proud that one of my sons, traveling through South America, dragged his friends 200 miles out of the way to see the alleged tombs of Butch and Sundance outside a remote Bolivian city. That’s because he was practically weaned on this unbeatably entertaining western.

Toy Story (1995)

The animation that Pixar launched, so a film of cultural significance and humor, charm and a lot of fun. What a pleasure it was to meet Woody, Buzz Lightyear and co 25 years ago. No Pixar movie will ever put this in my heart, not even Toy Story 2.

12 Annie Hall (1977)

At the age of 84, and with his mighty reputation undermined by horrible (and unproven) allegations, Woody Allen is still making movies. A new one is coming next month. But he never surpassed this wonderfully funny and quirky romcom.

11 Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Yes, it romanticized two assassins, played unforgettable by Faye Dunaway and the film’s producer, Warren Beatty (who originally wanted Bob Dylan to play Clyde). But Arthur Penn’s image changed the cinematic landscape. Inexpressibly stylish, unrelentingly violent and one of the greatest films of all time.

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