Brain Donors, and a few other movies


Brain Donors

On DVD from the library

Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker were almost a brand name in Hollywood, the team behind some of the best comedies of the 1970s-90s — Kentucky Fried Movie, Airplane!, Police Squad, Top Secret, etc. 

Jim Abrahams wasn't involved in this effort, but the Zuckers (David & Jerry) were, with a screenplay by Pat Proft, who wrote or co-wrote Police Academy and most of the ZAZ canon. So this film has funny in its family tree, but brace yourself for some serious sacrilege:

It's an attempt at bringing back the Marx Brothers, all long dead by 1992, in a very loose remake of A Night at the Opera, only here it's a week at the ballet. 

If they'd asked my advice, I would've shouted no, but they didn't ask, just went ahead and did it. 

John Turturro channels Groucho as Roland T. Flakfizer, an ambulance-chasing lawyer who literally chases an ambulance. A quick-talker, sly-schemer, and ladies' man, he eschews the mustache, but has the attitude, mannerisms, and about 75% of Groucho's body language. 

British comic Mel Smith takes Chico's spot, but English with an English accent isn't a fraction as funny as whatever language Chico spoke. Smith's personality and performance don't come close to what's needed, and he doesn't hold your attention like Chico.

Someone named Bob Nelson tackles Harpo's responsibilities, doing sight gags, looking dopey, and not speaking (much). Nelson often aims for 'stupid' instead of Harpo's 'zany', and he teeters on the brink of being annoying.

To be clear, the actors aren't playing Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, only characters inspired by them, and all three have impossible galoshes to fill. Which makes it all the more amazing that Turturro, and the movie, are actually funny, and it feels Marxy.

The claymation opening and ending could've been axed, the score is a hammer to the head, and the movie's title is dumb and not connected to the story. But it has some of the original movies' anarchy and lunacy, and unlike a real Marx Bros film, there aren't any long unfunny sections or tedious songs.

Nancy Marchand (from Lou Grant and The Sopranos) is a reincarnation of Margaret Dumont, playing the owner of the ballet, frequently befuddled and bemused and besmitten by Turturro's Groucho-fueled Flakfizer.

To Zucker and Zucker and Proft's credit, none of the original movies' laugh lines are rerun here — they've stolen everything except the jokes.

ZAZ's missing Mr A probably thought this movie was a bad idea, and so did I, but we were wrong. It's a loving homage — the funniest guys of my generation, salute the funniest guys of our grandparents' era.

Anyone who loved the Marx Brothers is likely to like this.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Go West (1925)

Streaming on Internet Archive 

Buster Keaton plays a guy named Friendless, which seems a cruel thing for his parents to do to him. He's a failure in the big city, so he follows Horace Greeley's advice to "Go west," stows away on a freight train, hops off in sagebrush territory, and becomes a cowpoke.

He falls in love with a rancher's (you're expecting 'daughter', or perhaps 'wife', but) cow, and after he removes a stone lodged in its hoof, the feeling is mutual. He's supposed to milk her, but being a young man well brought up, he's hesitant to touch her titties, and simply places a bucket under her udder and waits.

The remarkable physical stunts Keaton was famed for are absent here, but we get Keaton running on the roof of a runaway train, and the release of hundreds of cattle on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. And it's real — not much of this movie was filmed on sets.

Everything's quite cleverly put together, right from the opening, where Friendless sells everything he owns to a shopkeeper, and still walks out penniless.

There's a scene where Keaton, known as "The Great Stone Face" because he never smiled on camera, accuses another card player of cheating. The cheater pulls a gun, points it at Keaton, and says, "When you say that, smile."

Does Keaton smile? He does not, but you will.

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦  

Go West (1940)

On DVD from the library 

The (genuine) Marx Brothers follow the sun to Dead Man's Gulch, with Groucho as a con man, and Chico and Harpo as prospectors also eager to pull a con.

It opens with a near-classic two-against-one fleecing over their rail fare. It closes with the dismantling of a speeding locomotive, which is obviously faked, but fun. In between, there are intermittent laughs, though at a less frequent pace than the Marxes' best movies.

As usual, the comedy stops for unnecessary drama and insipid songs (four of them, this time) but Groucho and Chico join in on one number, which helps. Chico plays a piano with an orange, Harpo plays a loom like a harp, and there's enjoyable silliness in a stagecoach, a saloon, a native village, and on the aforementioned train.

"You love your brother, don't you?"

"No, but I'm used to him."

This is not Duck Soup or Animal Crackers, and it lacks Margaret Dumont, but by all means, Greeley was right, Go West. This is better than 98% of what Hollywood thinks is funny these days.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

• Coming attractions •

Caged Men: Tales from Chicago's SRO Hotels (2017)

Eight Characters in Search of a Sitcom (2003)

The Flipside of Dominick Hide (1980)

Following (1998) 

Jurassic Punk (2022)

The Invisible Man (1933)

Naked (1993) 

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988)

Tunnel Vision (2023) 

12:01 (1993)

    • And then •

American Revolution 2 (1969)

The Dark Crystal (1982)

Delicatessen (1991)

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

District 9 (2009)

Freaked (1993)

High-Rise (2016)

Hit! (1973)

Inherent Vice (2014)

Last Tango in Paris (1972) 

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

My Life in Monsters (2015)

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (first season, 2022)

Upstream Color (2013)  

White Lotus (first season, 2021) 

Who Killed Captain Alex (2010)    


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

CultCinema Classics
Films for Action
Internet Archive
Kino Lorber
Korean Classic Film
Christopher R Mihm
National Film Board of Canada
New Yorker Screening Room
Damon Packard
Mark Pirro
Public Domain Movies
Scarecrow Video
Timeless Classic Movies
or your local library.

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —
Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff.

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  1. Captain HampocketsAugust 1, 2023 at 8:45 AM

    So, I feel like I've recommended this before, perhaps in person, and perhaps not at all, but - have you seen the documentary "The Unknown Marx Brothers?" It's fantastic.

    1. It's in my sizable watchlist (an auxiliary disk with holding hundreds of movies) and has been, since you first suggested it, but I'm adding it to the "hurry up" list.

  2. Brain Donors . How have I never heard of this? Sheyst.

    The only time I saw a silent movie I was stoned.

    1. Thanks, Claude, and you should say thanks too, Jordan. That's a great bunch of silents, a few of which I've seen and the rest I (now) hope to.

  3. Try a silent when you're sober. You can even talk during the movie (if you're at home).


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