Tuesday, February 10, 2009


The dreadful 2006 prequel/remake of “The Pink Panther” turned out to be a travesty of a once splendid slapstick franchise about the world’s most incompetent French detective. The late British comic Peter Sellers created Inspector Jacques Clouseau back in 1963 for director Blake Edwards in the original “Pink Panther” with David Niven and Robert Wagner. Watching Sellers mangle the language while performing his silly shenanigans made for a sidesplitting experience. Steve Martin tried to imitate Clouseau’s clowning in “The Pink Panther” and for the most part stumbled through the role. Indeed, he managed to salvage a moment or two with his bumbling bravado, ridiculous accent, and a naughty word. The biggest change between Sellers’ Clouseau and Martin’s Clouseau is that Martin’s Clouseau has moments of blinding brilliance that Sellers’ Clouseau never had. Surprisingly, three years later, Steve Martin has captured the comic spirit of both Sellers and Clouseau in the lively sequel “The Pink Panther 2” (*** out of ****) and “Agent Cody Banks” director Harald Zwart keeps slapping us silly throughout this nimble, 91-minute merriment with riotous pratfalls and sight gags galore. The 2006 “Pink Panther” looked abysmal, but it coined over a $158 million worldwide. Incredibly, the far superior sequel looks absolutely fantastic, but it isn’t generating the box office receipts of its predecessor.

Like most sequels, “The Pink Panther 2” plays for bigger stakes. A mysterious thief, the Tornado, has stolen the British Magna Carta, the Italian Shroud of Turin, and the Imperial Sword of Japan. The ingenious Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber screenplay has the world authorities assembling an elite team of crack detectives to catch the elusive Tornado. Included are Italian investigator Vicenzo (Andy Garcia of “The Godfather, Part 3”), British cop Randal Pepperridge (Alfred Molina of “Spider-man 2”), and Japanese policeman Kenji (Yuki Matsuzaki). It is only a matter of time before French Chief Inspector Dreyfus (John Cleese of the Monty Python troupe) is summoned by Joubert (Geoffrey Palmer of "Tomorrow Never Dies"), his immediate superior, and ordered to add Clouseau to the team. The envious Dreyfus volunteers to take Clouseau’s place. He tells Joubert that he has Clouseau on a special assignment to safeguard Parisians. In reality, Dreyfus has banished our hero to writing tickets for parking infractions. Joubert demands that Clouseau join the dream team. Initially, Clouseau is reluctant to leave France. He fears the Tornado will take advantage of his absence and pinch the Pink Panther diamond on display in a Parisian museum. Clearly, something must have changed because the diamond was set in a ring in the previous “Pink Panther.” No sooner has Clouseau walked out of the terminal to board his plane to Rome than the word hits the airwaves about of the Pink Panther’s theft.

“The Pink Panther 2” contains many memorable gags. In a restaurant in Rome, Clouseau selects a bottle of wine for his girlfriend, Nicole (Emily Mortimer of “Scream 3”), and winds up tipping the wine rack so all the bottles cascade out. Waiters scramble everywhere to catch these falling bottles. Only one bottle hits the floor, but it doesn’t break! Just when everything seems safe, Clouseau crosses the room, steps on that wine bottle rolling across the floor, falls and throws his wine bottle into the air. Clouseau’s wine bottle shatters on a flaming dessert dish, and the entire restaurant burns down! In another scene, Clouseau tries to sneak inconspicuously around a three story villa. He climbs onto the roof but falls backwards down the chimney, crashing through three fireplaces! In a duel of wits, Clouseau and Pepperridge display their powers of deduction. They observe things about each other that they have no apparent way of knowing. As the duel concludes, Pepperridge makes a comment about Clouseau’s trip to the airport. A puzzled Clouseau wonders how Pepperridge knew about airport as he holds up the back of his hand that the passport official had stamped by accident.

The lunacy in “The Pink Panther 2” compares favorably with the better Sellers’ “Pink Panther” movies. The martial arts hand-to-hand combat scenes in his apartment are hilarious. Director Harald Zwart and his writers have cleverly contrived events in advance so you are actually given clues about the villain’s identity before Clouseau unveils the guilty party. The trouble is that unless you’re vigilant, you’ll miss this bit of foreshadowing. Jean Reno returns as Detective Ponton, Clouseau’s right hand man, who is supposed to defend himself from any of Clouseau’s unexpected attacks. You see, Clouseau has trained Ponton to be constantly vigilant, and the best way for Clouseau to test Ponton’s vigilance is to attack him without warning. When Ponton’s wife kicks his two sons and him from their house, they move in with Clouseau. Ponton’s sons teach Clouseau a trick or two about vigilance. Not surprisingly, John Cleese is a lot funnier as Chief Inspector Dreyfus than Kevin Kline was in the 2006 “Pink Panther.” Lily Tomlin shines in a small role as a overseer at police headquarters who monitors political correctness. She busts Clouseau for his sexist and racist attitude toward women and foreigners. Canadian composer Christophe Beck does an excellent job of duplicating Henry Mancini’s unforgettable theme music. The Pink Panther cartoon that opens “The Pink Panther 2” is as good as any of the original “Pink Panther” cartoons. Happily, this “Pink” doesn’t stink like its predecessor.


The transition from silent films to talkies proved devastating for many movie stars. Some with thick European accents, like Teutonic actor Emil Jannings who won the first Best Acting Oscar, did not weather the conversion and returned to Germany. The silent clowns who practiced the art of pantomime became one group adversely affected by the advent of sound. Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd emerged as the first casualties of the talkies. Meanwhile, Chaplin had nothing but contempt for sound films. “Motion pictures need dialogue as much as Beethoven symphonies need lyrics,” he said. Indeed, Chaplin saw few advantages to sound, despite the sensation that the new technology created for the industry. Warner Brothers introduced sound pictures in 1927 with its quasi-talkie “The Jazz Singer,” and sound propelled Warners into the big leagues with exalted studios like MGM and Paramount. Chaplin did not rush to climb aboard the sound movie bandwagon. Instead, he hoped that “City Lights” (**** out of ****) would revive silent movies. As the popularity of sound waxed, Chaplin grew more anxious about sound. Nevertheless, he produced his greatest silent movie comedy “City Lights” in 1931. He took into account, however, the impact of sound and added a synchronized soundtrack as well as his own post-production musical score. Chaplin remained reluctant to convert to sound. When he made his next classic comedy Modern Times (1936), he made it as a silent. Eventually, Chaplin converted to sound with his classic anti-Hitler film “The Great Dictator” in 1940.

Chaplin’s survival is amazing since sound ushered in a new breed of comedian. These comics hailed from either vaudeville or the Broadway stage. As the silent comics vanished, the comedians who replaced them supplemented their slapstick with verbal wit. Although Chaplin maintained his popularity, these comedians who had polished their acts on stage for years entered the limelight as America entered the Great Depression and desperately needed wisecracking encouragement that these funnymen fed them. The Marx Brothers, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo, with their peculiar brand of banter that emphasized puns reflected the changes in comedy. Paramount released their films beginning with “The Cocoanuts” (1929), “Animal Crackers”
(1930), “Monkey Business” (1931), “Horse Feathers” (1932) and “Duck Soup” (1933). Chaplin faced other formidable competitors, including Universal Studios’ curmudgeonly snide W. C. Fields and RKO’s buffoonish box office champions Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey.

Chaplin’s dismissal of sound grew out of his success as a mime. The former English music hall pantomimist created his life-long comic persona--the ‘little tramp’--for the 1914 silent comedy The Kid Auto Races at Venice. Chaplin rose through the ranks at various studios until his success with the little tramp enabled him to finance his own studio. Chaplin’s mute tramp appealed to everybody everywhere because body language constituted an international language. Asian audiences appreciated Chaplin’s comic body language as much as Scandinavians. “My own pictures will always be silent,” he assured his audiences. Although he added a synchronized sound track, Chaplin ridiculed talkies in “City Lights.” In the opening scene, when dignitaries dedicate a monument to ‘Peace and Prosperity,’ Chaplin pokes fun at these pretentious people with his use of squawky sound effects.

"City Lights" qualifies as a sweetly sentimental saga about Chaplin's trademark ‘little tramp’ character in his tattered evening clothes and a hat falling hopeless in love with a beautiful but blind flower girl played by Virginia Cherrill. Meanwhile, when the Tramp isn't buying flowers from the heroine and escorting her back to where she lives with her grandmother, he strikes up an on-and-off friendship with a real millionaire. According to the credits, mustached Harry Myers of "Getting Gertie's Garter" (1927) plays an 'eccentric millionaire.' He is eccentric because he lives alone without his wife and has only his butler to care for him. Unhappy, the millionaire either tries to commit suicide or gets plastered and goes from one party to another, even hosting them at his mansion. The Tramp runs into him late one evening when the Millionaire tries to commit suicide by drowning himself. The Tramp gets soaked for saving his new found friend and the friend reciprocates and becomes the Tramp's long-lost friend—that is—until he sobers up and has no memory of their friendship.

In any case, the Tramp learns about a treatment that a foreign doctor has used to help some blind people recover their sight and he sets out to earn the money so that the blind girl can see again. The Tramp tries to earn the money the old-fashioned way by joining the ranks as a city sanitation engineer. In other words, he scoops up animal droppings and hauls them away. In one amusing scene, he tries to avoid a street strewn with animals, only to have a couple of circus elephants stomp up out of nowhere. Eventually, he gets fired for being late back to work after his lunch break. Next door, at a gym, he agrees to box for a share of the purse and his opponent agrees to share. Things take a turn for the worse, when the guy has to leave unexpectedly. It seems that the police are after him. The guy who replaces the fleeing boxer is a dour tough guy who is a little afraid of the Tramp's efforts to ingratiate himself to him. Further, the new guy refuses to share the prize money. In one of the funniest scenes ever, we see the Tramp strenuously avoid blows with the rival boxer. The Tramp keeps the referee between them at times or gets behind the other boxer. This confusion is sheer side-splitting fun. Sadly, the Tramp loses, but he keeps trying to get the girl her money.

Charlie Chaplin does a flawless job directing this sappy love story. He alternates his love story with the friendship with the rich man. The way that he meets the blind flower girl is brilliant. The Tramp is walking along when he spots a cop (cops always scare him) and he ducks into a limo parked in the street. When he comes out the door on the other side, he sets foot on the sidewalk in front of the blind girl. The Tramp falls madly in love at first sight and the limo cruises away with the girl believing that she has sold a flower to a wealthy gentleman instead of a homeless transient. There is a pretty funny dance hall number with the Tramp setting fire to a woman's chair and then her dress. However, the crowning achievement of “City Lights” is its weepy ending. The Tramp has survived a sentence in stir and he meets the blind girl again, but things are definitely changed. Like the short story about the woman in the arena in Rome, "City Lights" asks you to decide for yourself if it has a happy ending or a cynical ending.