Spend Time with Gene Wilder at Theaters This Weekend

Where to see "Blazing Saddles" and "Willy Wonka" in Pittsburgh, plus reviews of "The Light Between Oceans" and "Morgan."


It’s hard to overstate how powerful Gene Wilder’s comedy was.

When we think of our favorite comedic film performers, the names most frequently mentioned — Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner (Wilder’s late wife) to name a few — are usually people who came from the world of stand-up comedy or sketch. That’s not Wilder’s story; a career actor, he came from the theater. And yet anyone who doesn’t list him when naming the finest comic performers of the 20th century simply wasn’t paying enough attention.

If you go back and revisit some of Wilder’s work this week, pay attention. Watch a scene from “Young Frankenstein,” or “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” or “Silver Streak.” But don’t just wait for your favorite lines. Watch beyond the memorable gags. Watch his face and his every movement in each frame; listen to every note his voice makes. Wilder carried the humor of the situation in every cell of his body, in a way that rivals Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin.

There are key performances in Wilder’s career that I have yet to see, and I look forward to discovering them; I bet that’s the case for most people. But after his death Monday at age 83, two examples of his finest work are returning to theaters.

“Blazing Saddles,” Mel Brooks’ near-perfect sendup of the western genre, and “Willy Wonka,” the children’s story turned into an indelible fable thanks to Wilder’s performance, can be found at a number of local cinemas in coming weeks. Both films will play at AMC Loews Waterfront 22 Saturday and Sunday. The same pair will be given the screen at Row House Cinema the following Sunday, Sept. 11, and at the Hollywood Theater today through Wednesday (check the schedule, both won’t be shown every day).

Pittsburgh Filmmakers also decided to dedicate its Sunday-night series at Regent Square Theater to Wilder this month, pulling a program together at the last minute; along with “Blazing Saddles” and “Willy Wonka,” Wilder’s Oscar-nominated role in Brooks’ “The Producers” will be revived.

The fact that these films in particular, and Wilder’s work in general, can now be seen all over town mere days after his passing is a tribute to the influence and love that the actor engendered not just in film fans, but everyone fortunate enough to watch his work. Take this chance to revisit.

But more importantly, take this as a beautiful opportunity to laugh. That’s what he wanted you to do.

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Well, writing that brought me close to tears. Which is more than I can say for “The Light Between Oceans,” the attempted tearjerker arriving in theaters this weekend. Its performances, led by Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz, are enough to keep audiences invested; its story is cloying at best and troublesome at worst. Set off the Australian coast after World War I, “Oceans” follows a troubled war veteran turned lonely lighthouse keeper; he meets a beautiful young woman on a rare trip to town, and his island outpost gets a lot less lonely. She wants kids, but miscarries; when a rowboat washes up on the island containing a dead man and a live baby, she convinces him to shirk his duty and claim the child as their own. Things get significantly more complicated and always more depressing from there. The movements of the story seem designed not to do the characters justice or form a sound narrative but rather to elicit the most pained response from viewers at every turn, and plenty about Vikander’s character hovers between bizarre and retrograde. If you like slowly spoken sentences and beautiful shots of lighthouses, this is definitely the film for you; otherwise, feel free to keep your weekend free full of horrible, lighthouse-related depression.

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I was significantly more pleased with the sci-fi thriller “Morgan,” from first-time director Luke Scott. Kate Mara plays a corporate functionary investigating a quiet research project: A human-like, artificially intelligent robot has been born and bred in a laboratory setting, with some impressive results. The bot (Anya Taylor-Joy, who gave one of the year’s best performances in “The Witch”) has begun behaving erratically, and a psychological evaluation of sorts (conducted by Paul Giamatti, in a small role) is in order. There are some echoes of last year’s “Ex-Machina,” and the final twist is visible from space, but the performances are good and the action is compelling. It’s outpaced by its own ambitions at points, but genre fans are likely to be quite pleased.


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