A Halloween comedy tradition comes to Liberty Hall big screen

The ongoing Film Church series at Liberty Hall rolls on this month with three screenings on Sunday of Mel Brooks’ comedy classic “Young Frankenstein,” a movie that brings a personal Halloween tradition for Maggie Allen, cinema and video store manager, into the public, albeit five days early.

No matter where she is or what’s going on that night, Allen watches “Young Frankenstein” on Halloween every year.

“One year my former roommate and I had a Halloween party at our house. As the party dragged on into the wee hours of the morning, I realized if I wanted to get my viewing in, I was just going to have to put it on and watch it with a house full of revelers,” Allen says. “The movie wasn’t on for more than 15 minutes when I noticed that the entire party had gathered around to watch. It’s a powerful film.”

1974 was a banner year for Mel Brooks. He released “Young Frankenstein” 40 years ago in December, and it was hot on the heels of the unexpected success of “Blazing Saddles,” which was released that February. Audiences lined up around the block to watch he and Gene Wilder’s pitch-perfect parody of the beloved James Whale-directed Universal classics “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein.”

The movie is unusual in that Brooks didn’t write the original screenplay. Wilder came to the writer/director during the shooting of “Blazing Saddles” with a script he’d been working on, and before long, the two were working together on rewrites. The project moved from Columbia to 20th Century Fox because the new studio not only agreed to a higher budget but also Brooks’ demand that the film be shot in black and white.

“I’m sure the film would still be funny in color, but it would lose that moody, romantic, classic, gothic charm that makes it so enduring,” Allen says. “Also, giving the film the look and feel of a picture from Hollywood’s Golden Age creates a juxtaposition that sharpens the jokes. The contrast of the gloomy, eerie atmosphere to the silliness of the lines and business heightens the surprise of each joke.”

In addition to the evocative cinematography, the set pieces and props from Whale’s original films were found by Brooks and used in “Young Frankenstein” to give it an authentic feel. Of course, Cloris Leachman’s creepy turn as the mysterious Frau Blücher (horse whinny) sells the joke even further, at once recalling the foreboding characters of classic horror while being downright hilarious at the same time.

“Young Frankenstein” appears at number 13 on the American Film Institute list of funniest American comedies, and the uninitiated may be surprised to find that it’s also kid-friendly. If children don’t understand all the nods to the 1930s films, there are plenty of Brooks-style gags and fourth-wall-breaking winks to the audience, notably from Marty Feldman’s Igor. It also contains what may be Wilder’s best performance.

“Not only is [Wilder] funny, but he is romantic, sexy, tender, crazed, powerful and poetic,” Allen says. “Even when the story calls for a melodrama — as it would in staying true to the genre — he executes it with precision and control. How he didn’t win an award for his performance in this film is beyond me. Wilder has never been properly acknowledged for his craftsmanship.”

“Young Frankenstein” is showing at 4 p.m. 7 p.m., and 9:30 p.m. Sunday at Liberty Hall. It is 106 minutes and is rated PG for adult language, adult content and mild violence.

St. Vincent

If there were a grumpy old man who lived next door to every latch-key kid in America, we’d have a lot more well-adjusted children in the world.

At least that’s what Hollywood would have you believe. “St. Vincent” stars Bill Murray as a mean-spirited drunk who takes 12-year-old Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) under his wing for baby-sitter wages when his mother (Melissa McCarthy) is forced to work late-night hours at her new job. Vincent takes the boy to all kinds of unsavory places — the racetrack, the bar — and introduces him to a pregnant Russian stripper (Naomi Watts) with a heart of gold.

Vincent’s not a total bastard, you see — he’s just rough around the edges. After all, he’s played by Murray, so even at his most cantankerous, he’s still charming. The effortless chemistry of Murray and Lieberher are the main reason that, even at its most clichéd, “”St. Vincent” mostly works.

In fitting with the generous spirit of the film, the barflies and various unsavory characters Oliver meets through Vincent are all pretty sympathetic as well, but writer/director Theodore Melfi should be given credit for at least taking a couple of detours through some dark places before settling on the inevitable heartwarming moments that the story requires. These scenes fill in the blanks of Vincent's character. Getting to know your local senior citizen better ends up being the point of the entire film, I suppose.

From the moment that Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd) starts teaching the kids at Oliver’s new Catholic school about historical and modern-day saints, it’s pretty obvious where “St. Vincent” is headed. Melfi struggles to wrap everything up and hits some false notes leading up to his title character's crowning, but this formula is still hard to resist completely.

Even though the movie’s ending is about as pat as these kind of coming-of-age movies get, you’d have to be a bigger bastard than Vincent not to feel, well ... something.

Running time: 102 minutes. Rated PG-13 for for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language. Playing at: Regal Southwind Stadium 12

Love is Strange

Far more subtle at Liberty Hall is the terrific new film "Love is Strange," featuring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a New York gay couple in a 39-year relationship who have just gotten married. That joyous occasion, a low-key gathering with friends and family reflecting their continued love for the longtime companions, turns out to be a catalyst for some life-changing challenges.

Co-writer and director Ira Sachs employs an interesting strategy, delivering everyday moments that play like vivid snapshots in time, and letting the audience fill in the blanks between. It allows him to paint a broader picture — without using flashbacks — of the couple's history and life together. It also gives the film a very lived-in quality that dovetails nicely with the well-rounded performances of old pros Lithgow and Molina.

"Love is Strange" has plenty of conflict, but it seems virtually free from the demands of traditional plot-heavy films. It carries the ring of truth at least partially because its subtext is everything, and its scenes are rarely about what they're really about. The relationships between all of the supporting characters (including Marisa Tomei and Charlie Tahan) are sometimes prickly, even as great love and respect shine through.

Sachs shows that great drama and powerful storytelling can exist in the most quiet moments, free from shouting and other kinds of histrionics.

Running time: 100 minutes. Rated R for language (which is tremendously short-sighted, considering the positivity and family values that the film displays). Playing at: Liberty Hall.


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