Thursday, September 8, 2011

John Landis is back -- with the funny, charming, nasty, ironic BURKE AND HARE

I find it a little sad that the latest film from the ground-breaking (in terms of horror and humor) American director John Landis (Animal House, An American Werewolf in London) should go straight to VOD and  then open in one Manhattan theater, playing but twice daily. This seems particularly galling because Landis' new film, BURKE AND HARE, is such devilish good fun -- making use of some of Blighty's best comic talent and combining a host of genres -- comedy, horror, history, farce, nostalgia, economic satire -- into a single, extremely entertaining package. And all covered by a lovely layer of irony.

No, the film is not ground-breaking in any way, but then many of Landis' movies have not been (the director is shown at right). He has trafficked most in humor and horror, while broadening occasionally to includes genres as far afield as documentary. But there is no shame in making a quality product out of remnants, particularly when the pieces are as fine as the examples we have here. Starting from a good script by Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft (both of whom gave us the funny St. Trinian's remake) that offers a wonderfully witty mix of the old and the quite new, Landis captures the place and time-period beautifully (early 1800s Scotland) and draws a host of good performances from his starry cast -- an interesting mix of comic pros (Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis in the lead roles), delightful oddball appearances (how often do you get to see Ray Harryhausen and Costa Gavras in front of the camera?!) and mainstream near-names (Isla Fisher as the "love" interest).

The tale itself is not a new one -- the story, or something like it, has been filmed a dozen times already (mostly recently in Glenn McQuaid's, I Sell the Dead), but it's a good one and Landis and his cast and crew give it style and charm aplenty. This is the story of the two Williams, Burke and Hare (Pegg, above, left, and Serkis, right), historical characters who went from grave robbing to serial killing in the space of one year.

Initially doing it to serve the needs of the then well-known and competing physicians/professors Knox and Monro (played juicily and respectively by Tom Wilkinson (above) and Tim Curry (below, right), our "heroes" discover that it's a mere step from robbing a grave to simply providing a victim.

Into the mix comes a theater troupe of aspiring actresses intent on doing Shakespeare with an all-female cast (here's another chance to see the delicious Pollyanna McIntosh from Exam!), a funny French photographer (done delightfully by Allan Corduner), a wonderfully philosophic hangman who begins and ends the movie (Bill Bailey, below) and various assorted criminals and police.

When the humor flags a bit, the visual takes over, (nice, widescreen photography by John Mathieson) or the performances, and then, all of a sudden, we're laughing again. One of the keenest examples of visual wit is to be found in the shot below, but you'll have to be there to fully appreciate it.

There's a sad moment, as a series of fabulous photos are destroyed and art goes down to expediency, and the finale, as Landis introduces his cast and wraps the whole thing up in a museum is simply lovely -- there's such genuine "movie love" here, you'll shiver.

So if you can't get out to see the film when it opens at IFC Center tomorrow (on its twice-daily, 12:25 and 8:30 pm, schedule), do stick it on your Netflix queue. We no longer experience that often the pleasures of good, professional (and, yes, beautifully old-fashioned) movie-making that a film like Burke and Hare provides. Enjoy!

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