The Set of 400: #44 – My Favorite Prince Myshkin Shoutout

Today! Because he was a better dresser than Churchill! He had more hair! He told funnier jokes! And he could dance the pants off of Churchill!

The Producers (1968)

Directed by Mel Brooks (x6)

Starring Zero Mostel (x3), Gene Wilder (x5), Dick Shawn, Kenneth Mars, Lee Meredith, Christopher Hewett, Andreas Voutsinas, William Hickey (x4), Renee Taylor (x2), Estelle Winwood (x2), Barney Martin, Madelyn Cates

You know I love me some movies about plays, and really stagey ones at that, and so – The Producers! While it would take decades for Mel Brooks’ classic to actually make it to Broadway, it should come as no surprise that it made the leap pretty seamlessly. The entire first half hour of the movie is just Zero and Gene’s one room shtick to set up the plot – and wildly funny shtick it is. And with the exception of a handful of NYC street scenes, it’s just one room after another hosting wacky characters and even wackier theatrics. A few of his other films would grab Oscar nominations, but The Producers is the reason Mel is rocking that EGOT – winning Best Screenplay in 1968, as well as Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score for the stage version in 2001 (He also won Grammys for Producers related work, but already had one on the shelf for The 2000 Year Old Man in the Year 2000 as Best Comedy Album).

Just to wrap this up, he also won three Emmys for Guest Comedy Actor on Mad About You, and one for writing on a Sid Caesar special in the ’60s

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The Set of 400: #45 – My Favorite Enchantment Under the Sea

Today! Because the way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?

Back to the Future (1985)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis (x4)

Starring Michael J. Fox (x4), Christopher Lloyd (x6), Lea Thompson (x3), Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson (x3), James Tolkan (x5), Claudia Wells, Marc McClure (x4), Wendie Jo Sperber (x2), George DiCenzo (x2), Frances Lee McCain, Casey Siemaszko (x2), Billy Zane (x4), Donald Fullilove (x3), Jason Hervey (x2), Harry Waters Jr.

I mean, come on, you don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Back to the Future, right? Even with the incestuous overtones and the general lack of effects-heavy science-fictioning going on, it’s still one of everyone’s top sci-fi films ever made. It’s a little dated, sure, but it was such a towering staple of the ’80s that it gets a pass for the anachronistic jokes and references. Pepsi Free? Come on! By the time I first saw this movie – as I mentioned before, years after it had come out – I didn’t even know what the hell Pepsi Free was.

Wait a minute, there was a Diet Pepsi Free? Now I really don’t understand what it was

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The Set of 400: #46 – My Favorite Albatross

Today! Because I’m going to break you, Holmes. I’m going to bring off right under your nose the most incredible crime of the century, and you’ll never suspect it until it’s too late –

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Directed by Alfred Werker

Starring Basil Rathbone (x5), Nigel Bruce (x4), George Zucco (x3), Ida Lupino, Alan Marshal (x3), Henry Stephenson, E.E. Clive (x2), Arthur Hohl (x3), Terry Kilburn (x3), Mary Gordon (x3), Holmes Herbert, Peter Willes

The best film in the Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes series, the second one chronologically, and the fourth to the make this list, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was released six months after The Hound of the Baskervilles and still enjoyed all the support and budget Twentieth Century Fox was willing to offer. Thus, it’s a beautifully designed Victorian yarn pitting Holmes and Watson opposite George Zucco’s Moriarty, the most dynamic in the film series (he would appear twice more in the later Universal films, played by Lionel Atwill and Henry Daniell). The ingeniously simple plot – relying more on Moriarty’s understanding of the Holmes’ psyche than twisting complexity – culminates with an all-time classic showdown between the two at the Tower of London.

Much earlier in the film they split a cab, which was an economical way to see London in the 1800s, and still is today

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The Set of 400: #47 – My Favorite Nude Interrogation

Today! Because sometimes we pay so much attention to our enemies, we forget to watch our friends as well –

Casino Royale (2006)

Directed by Martin Campbell

Starring Daniel Craig (x4), Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench (x2), Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Giannini, Jesper Christensen, Caterina Murino, Simon Abkarian

The best Bond movie ever, from the best modern Bond director, Casino Royale had a very tall order come 2006. It had only been a lean four years since Pierce Brosnan’s relatively popular Bond run ended, and the new plan was to take 007 in a decidedly different direction. Whereas there normally is no rebooting of this series, per se, Casino purports to tell of Bond’s beginning, even with the same M from the past decade. It was the first Bond book, but never used as a mainline title so as to not be confused with the David Niven/Peter Sellers/Woody Allen parody of the same name from 1967, or the television adaptation starring Barry Nelson from 1954, I guess.

Not overly convincing, but Nelson was the first Bond, and still the only American in the role! I had this on VHS, but I believe you can now watch it on YouTube. It’s not great

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The Set of 400: #48 – My Favorite Soundstage Visible from Space

Today! Because we accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that –

The Truman Show (1998)

Directed by Peter Weir

Starring Jim Carrey (x4), Ed Harris (x3), Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Paul Giamatti, Holland Taylor (x2), Philip Baker Hall (x5), Harry Shearer (x4), Peter Krause, O-Lan Jones (x2), Joel McKinnon Miller, Tom Simmons, Brian Delate

I’m not sure at the time if we saw this movie as just a bit of science fiction or as a prescient blueprint, but either way, The Truman Show either accurately predicted what much of cable and network television would become over the next two decades, or it inspired the transformation. Sure, EDtv covered the same ground the following year (and the ’80s rebooted Twilight Zone episode “Special Service” some distance before), and was technically a little closer to the ultimate reality of reality television, plus it’s not like there had never been some version of this in actual practice – the 1973 PBS docu-series An American Family and MTV’s The Real World, most notably – but it wasn’t an omnipresent phenomenon like it would become in the 21st century. Within three years of Truman Show‘s release, the Emmys had a category for Outstanding Reality Program and in four years we had The Osbournes, popularly acknowledged as the beginning of the people having their lives filmed for entertainment craze. YouTube came along three years later, and now anyone could theoretically have their whole existence broadcast for consumption. Ah, what a time this has been to be alive!

Maybe it’s these jackasses who deserve all the blame

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The Set of 400: #49 – My Favorite Satanic Romance

Today! Because it’s been six weeks since Saddam Hussein was killed by a pack of wild boars and the world is still glad to be rid of him –

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999)

Directed by Trey Parker

Starring Trey Parker (x2), Matt Stone (x2), Mary Kay Bergman, Isaac Hayes (x2), George Clooney (x5), Brent Spiner (x2), Minnie Driver, Dave Foley, Eric Idle (x3), Mike Judge, Toddy Walters

The first time I saw anything South Park related was after my sister went away to college and somehow acquired a copy of the infamous Spirit of Christmas short – the epic Jesus vs. Santa bloodbath – which helped launched the long running Comedy Central program. At this point, our town hadn’t even gotten cable beyond channel 36 (QVC, incidentally), but the clamor for it was at such an intense volume that I can point to a number of people who would claim their lives completely changed when the lines got run to their houses, and all of a sudden we had multiple dozens of new channels.

I suspect no one under the age of 25 can really understand this now – going from an insanely limited number of options to seemingly everything we could ever want. I mean, we had MTV and VH1 and…A&E, since around 1990, but I remember when we expanded to that batch of channels, nearly tripling our lifetime tally of 13. Obviously getting MTV was the big deal then, considering it had existed for years by that point, but come 1997/8, the stories of all the splendors of extended cable were emanating from big cities, and South Park embodied all the wonders we were missing. I didn’t know what the hell was on E! or Bravo or The Learning Channel (TLC used to be The Learning Channel! Go look at what they air now!), all I knew was that I needed Comedy Central.

There are no bigger sellouts on Earth than TLC

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The Set of 400: #50 – My Favorite Spectral Comedy Club

Today! Because if you really wanna make this place feel like Earth, you should open a few of those mini-malls –

Defending Your Life (1991)

Directed by Albert Brooks (x2)

Starring Albert Brooks (x5), Meryl Streep (x3), Rip Torn (x4), Lee Grant, Buck Henry (x4), George D. Wallace, Lillian Lehman, Susan Walters, Shirley MacLaine (x2), Ethan Embry (x2), James Eckhouse (x2), Gary Beach, Mary Pat Gleason, Nurit Koppel

Why aren’t there more movies set in the afterlife? This seems like a setting rife with possibilities, given the complete lack of agreement what the hell is sitting out there waiting for us, if anything. Seriously, we’ve got the hyper complexity of NBC’s The Good Place, a bunch of movies dealing with some manner of reincarnation – Heaven Can Wait/Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Down to Earth, Oh! Heavenly Dog – or ghost visitations – Beetlejuice, Topper – but very few actually set in a heaven/hell/purgatory. Is this too troubling for audiences? Was a survey conducted discovering people don’t mind tales of trying to right your life’s wrongs and winning heaven as a prize, but not the actual heaven part?

Defending Your Life, in fairness, doesn’t cover this either – but it also isn’t set on Earth. I guess heaven has no conflicts inherent in it. The Good Place bends over backwards coming up with twists to prolong the story – and to marvelous effect, I might add – but couldn’t we just get a movie set in the great beyond with a parade of CGI guest stars from eons past? You know what, forget I mentioned it – I’ve got whole sections of my long-unfinished Choose Your Own Adventure style book dealing with this very thing. Maybe it’s time to break that out onto its own.

Available for pre-sale now, coming in 2026 (still editing)

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The Set of 400: #51 – My Favorite Champagne Improvement

Today! Because I wish I were you people seeing this for the first time –

The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

Directed by Jim Henson

Starring Jim Henson (x2), Frank Oz (x9), Jerry Nelson (x5), Dave Goelz (x5), Richard Hunt (x2), Charles Grodin (x2), Diana Rigg (x2), Jack Warden (x4), John Cleese (x4), Peter Ustinov (x2), Peter Falk (x5), Robert Morley, Steve Whitmire (x5), Louise Gold (x3), Caroll Spinney, Erica Creer, Kate Howard, Della Finch

The second feature Muppet film and the first released after The Muppet Show ended, The Great Muppet Caper had a higher degree of difficulty than any other film in the series, before or since. Figure, it’s the only non-adaptation film that doesn’t in some way incorporate putting on a show or show business as the backdrop (Muppets From Space is the only other one close, and that has a lot of Piggy’s aspiring journalism career at center). So they’ve crammed the familiar characters into oddball new roles – weirdly, again, journalism, but of the print variety, plus hotel management – albeit with their same names, and more fourth wall breaking than any other movie to explain this conceit. It had only been two years since the smash hit original Muppet Movie, and they didn’t have terrific Paul Williams songs to eat up a bunch of the run time (Muppet Caper‘s songs are still great, though). This one needed tons of jokes and cameos and a strong narrative to succeed, and it came through on all counts.

As a kid, I probably liked this Muppet outing best, or had it in a very close contest with Takes Manhattan. It’s a lot sillier than the original film, but still keeps the gang largely together unlike Manhattan. The England setting produces a bunch of fun gags (like The Muppet Show, Muppet Caper was filmed in and near London) and it features the most action packed finale of the franchise – a sequence not even attempted to be equaled by any successive movie until Most Wanted – which largely functioned as the Muppet Caper to 2011’s Muppets as Muppet Movie. Does that makes sense? I didn’t get to talk about Most Wanted on this list because it missed the cut off date, but I’m afraid people skipped it, as it got lost in theaters. Go watch Muppets Most Wanted, it’s pretty fun.

It’s the Kermit-goes-to-a-Siberian-prison-camp-run-by-Tina-Fey film you never knew you needed

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The Set of 400: #52 – My Favorite Chester A. Arthur Shoutout

Today! Because his own wife wants nothing to do with him, and he’s about two steps shy of becoming a full-blown alcoholic –

Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)

Directed by John McTiernan (x3)

Starring Bruce Willis (x5), Samuel L. Jackson (x10), Jeremy Irons (x2), Larry Bryggman, Graham Greene, Colleen Camp (x4), Kevin Chamberlin, Sam Phillips, Stephen Pearlman, Aldis Hodge, Anthony Peck, Aasif Mandvi, Charles Dumas, Michael Cristofer, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney (x2)

There has been many a day where I find myself lost in a general reverie and the water jug riddle from Die Hard with a Vengeance occurs to me. You have an empty five gallon jug and an empty three gallon jug and a water fountain. You need to come up with exactly four gallons of water. How is this done? In the movie, they have to solve this or bombs explode, whereas I need to solve it because the exact path they take to figure it out in the film hasn’t immediately come to mind, and I want to get on with my day. I’ll figure it out eventually – it’s not really that complicated – but for some reason, a month or two later, this will all happen again.

They solve this riddle in like 14 seconds

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The Set of 400: #53 – My Favorite Dead Animal Sleeping Bag

Today! Because I thought they smelled bad on the outside – 

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Directed by Irvin Kershner

Starring Mark Hamill (x3), Harrison Ford (x7), Carrie Fisher (x7), Anthony Daniels (x3), James Earl Jones (x6), Kenny Baker (x4), Peter Mayhew (x2), Frank Oz (x8), Alec Guinness (x3), David Prowse (x2), Billy Dee Williams (x2), Julian Glover (x2), Jeremy Bulloch, Kenneth Colley (x3), Denis Lawson, John Ratzenberger (x7), Jason Wingreen

Look, there was bound to come a time on this list where the movies just get crazy great. While there are maybe a few unconventional choices going forward, maybe some preferences inside franchises that are atypical, we’re still largely going to be dealing with super popular or super acclaimed films, by and large. So, like, what is there to say about The Empire Strikes Back that hasn’t already been said? Is there anything in entertainment or pop culture that has been written about more over the last forty years than Star Wars?

For me, it’s basically just this movie and the St. Patrick’s Day parade, though

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The Set of 400: #54 – My Favorite Death by Pies

Today! Because I gave up yesterday/But they still want more –

Bugsy Malone (1976)

Directed by Alan Parker (x2)

Starring Scott Baio, Jodie Foster (x3), Florence Garland, John Cassisi, Martin Lev, Paul Murphy, Sheridan Earl Russell, Albin Jenkins, Dexter Fletcher

My favorite modern-ish, live-action, non-puppet led musical, Bugsy Malone is nonetheless anything but conventional, what with its world of 1920s child gangsters belting out grown-up songs with adult dubbed voices. If you’ve never seen it, it is a pretty jarring choice, but again, these aren’t really children’s songs, so it works more than it doesn’t. The film, however, is very definitely a kid’s movie, and so may not seem like an obvious first time pickup for the adults out there. But if you somehow avoided Bugsy Malone all these years, you owe it to yourself to see this glorious bit of filmmaking.

First off, and most notably, you have Jodie Foster – the greatest child actor of them all – as the third lead. This is her second list film from 1976, neither of which are Taxi Driver, and while she’s easily the most talented person in the film, it’s hard for me to immediately hand over that MVP. Chachi/Bob Loblaw Scott Baio gives her a solid run as the title good guy mobster, everyone’s pal Bugsy, while the competing mob bosses – John Cassisi’s Fat Sam and Martin Lev’s Dandy Dan – are equally terrific in their opposing comic styles. Hell, actor/director Dexter Fletcher (who completed Bohemian Rhapsody once Singer got canned, and then helmed Rocketman, which hasn’t been released as of this writing, so I don’t know if that’s a positive or not) has a terrific, brief role as Baby Face. The child actor cast is first rate. Even the much maligned Florence Garland (who was thrust into the lead as Blousey when the previous actress grew too tall) gives a pretty game effort, even if she’s a bit unsuited to play opposite Baio so much.

Oh my God, how cute are these little criminal shits?

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The Set of 400: #55 – My Favorite Horse-Drawn Garbage Chariot

Today! Because I thought my razor was dull until I heard his speech. And that reminds me of a story that’s so dirty I’m ashamed to think of it myself –

Horse Feathers (1932)

Directed by Norman Z. McLeod (x2)

Starring Groucho Marx (x5), Chico Marx (x5), Harpo Marx (x5), Zeppo Marx (x3), Thelma Todd (x2), David Landau, Robert Greig, Nat Pendleton (x2), James Pierce, Florine McKinney

Admit it – you’ve missed the brothers Marx on this list! Nearly a hundred films have sailed by with nary a reference to the quiet one’s virtuoso harp skills or a discussion about how increasingly bitter the youngest must’ve gotten at his lack of jokes. Well don’t worry – even though we’re rapidly approaching the end, there are still a bunch of madcap Marx vehicles to come.

If differentiating between their early films is tough for you (which it shouldn’t be, come on), Horse Feathers is the one at the college. Groucho’s Professor Quincy Wagstaff is the newly appointed president of Huxley College, currently attended by his son, portrayed by his eleven years younger brother Zeppo. Chico and Harpo play their typical seedy types, brought in to steal football signals for a rival school, but obviously are out for themselves first and foremost, and so ending up switching sides, amidst much frivolity and spit balling.

No, literal spit balling

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The Set of 400: #56 – My Favorite Dog Acting a Damn Fool

Today! Because I’m not going to murder you in front of your child, okay?

Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino (x5)

Starring Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu (x2), Vivica A. Fox (x2), Daryl Hannah (x3), Julie Dreyfus (x2), Sonny Chiba, Michael Bowen (x3), Michael Parks, Jun Kunimura, Michael Madsen (x2), David Carradine, Gordon Liu, James Parks (x2), Jonathan Loughran (x2)

Functioning both as a total outlier and as no surprise whatsoever, Kill Bill Vol. 1 is the rare samurai/kung-fu movie to make the list, while also being the fifth Tarantino film to do so. I remember saying after first seeing this in theaters that I couldn’t imagine going a month without watching it again for the rest of my life. Yes, this was almost certainly just drunken hyperbole, but that’s how madly in love I was with Kill Bill. It’s such a thrilling, adrenaline-fueled, blood-splattered revenge epic that you can’t help being sucked in to the crazy, topsy-turvy world of the film. I would also venture it has the best Tarantino soundtrack, which is possibly the highest praise this movie can receive from me, who wore out cassette tapes of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs in the ’90s. From the perfect opening credits sequence set to Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” to the 5, 6, 7, 8s wacko “Woo Hoo,” I think the only collection to maybe top this is Kill Bill Vol. 2‘s, but it is a very close contest.

My baby shot me down

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The Set of 400: #57 – My Favorite Elevator Police Horse

Today! Because I remember the first time I got shot out of a cannon –

True Lies (1994)

Directed by James Cameron (x4)

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (x3), Jamie Lee Curtis (x3), Tom Arnold, Tia Carrere, Bill Paxton (x6), Grant Heslov, Eliza Dushku (x2), Charlton Heston (x2), Art Malik

I have a tendency to forget how balls-out insane the climax of this movie gets, because the brilliant middle section of the film pulls the action-adventure epic so far into straight comedy. In a lot of ways, True Lies is the ultimate ’90s action film, while somehow working as a terrific parody of the genre and cinematic era in general. It’s hard to tell if the movie builds toward the utterly ludicrous final showdown as a way of satirizing the bombastic action movies of the day and before, or if it just wanted to try and top them all. Amazingly, it works in either fashion, from certain points of view.

Schwarzenegger’s recent forays into full-on comedy with the likes of Kindergarten Cop and Twins served him well playing secret-agent-disguised-as-computer-salesman (albeit a super jacked one) Harry Tasker. His James Bond/Rambo operative gets off plenty of jokes and light-touch comic moments, amidst the daring and derring-do, opposite great comedy turns by Tom Arnold and Grant Heslov as his team members, Jamie Lee Curtis as his unsuspecting wife, and especially the late, great Extreme, Bill Paxton, as the oily car salesman gaslighting as a secret agent himself. When this middle section of the film starts, it feels like a wild left turn in the plot – up until then, we are just following a fun but routine spy-centric plot about smuggled weapons and Tia Carrere’s revealing eveningwear – but quickly resources are diverted, attention is shifted, and Paxton’s sleezy Simon is full center. While this whole sequence does open the door for all the wacky complications that lead to the film’s kidnap escaping/nuclear explosion/helicopter-limo rescue/Harrier jet-skyscraper third act, it also is the true genius stroke of the film, even if it only tangentially matters to the story. Without Simon trying to seduce Helen, you’d have an undoubtedly fun but pretty standard Schwarzenegger romp. Forever MVP the Extreme! Continue reading

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The Set of 400: #58 – My Favorite Bicycle Powered Sword Fighting Dummy

Today! Because unless I’m very much mistaken, chaderd is the Egyptian word meaning “to eat fat”! Now we’re getting somewhere!

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975)

Directed by Gene Wilder

Starring Gene Wilder (x4), Marty Feldman (x2), Madeline Kahn (x7), Leo McKern, Dom DeLuise (x7), Roy Kinnear (x3), John Le Mesurier, Nicholas Smith, Douglas Wilmer, Thorley Walters, John Hollis, Aubrey Morris (x2), Susan Field, Albert Finney (x4), George Silver

This movie was such a bedrock staple of childhood that I was amazed to learn of its relative obscurity as I got older. I mean, it’s not completely unknown, but it certainly isn’t widely discussed or regarded. Information about its general success upon initial release is a little tough to come by – I’ve seen it ranging anywhere from the 24th to 48th highest grossing movie of 1975, and it may or may not have been the #1 film the weekend before Christmas – but it certainly hasn’t had the staying power of the ’70s Mel Brooks films it is clearly patterned after.

Which is a shame, because while it doesn’t function overly well as a Sherlock Holmes parody – à la the more direct take off of #220 Without a Clue, say – it is a pretty solid Sherlock-esque comedy. Lifting an alias Holmes employed in the first Conan Doyle story after the character’s supposed death (“The Adventure of the Empty House”), Wilder plays Sherlock’s bitter younger brother Sigerson, not – as you may have guessed sight unseen – his famously smarter elder brother Mycroft. Sherlock (played by frequent Sherlock, Douglas Wilmer) directs a vitally important case to his brother through Feldman’s Scotland Yard Sergeant Orville Sacker (named very similar to Doyle’s early draft Dr. Watson – Ormond Sacker). Before long they are facing off with a comically volcanic Moriarty (the terrific Leo McKern), a habitually lying chanteuse (you can never go wrong giving Madeline Kahn musical numbers), and a horse-and-carriage chase/fight through the streets of London unlike any ever made.

Thanks for coming through, heavily watermarked stock photo!

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