Friday, November 21, 2014

#1,558. Simon and Garfunkel: The Concert in Central Park (1982)

Directed By: Michael Lindsay-Hogg

Starring: Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel

Trivia: The song 'The Late Great Johnny Ace' was interrupted by a fan on stage, resulting in it being the only song which did not appear on the soundtrack

Simon and Garfunkel’s The Concert in Central Park played continuously on U.S. cable station HBO back in 1982, and while I have no way of knowing for sure, I’m guessing I watched the entire thing at least 10 times. Eventually, I bought the soundtrack (on cassette tape, and then, a few years later, on CD), which I listened to over and over again. The Concert in Central Park was my first experience with Simon and Garfunkel’s music, and it turned me into a lifelong fan.

The Concert in Central Park was shot during a benefit show that took place on September 19, 1981, when half a million people crowded into Manhattan’s Central Park to witness the reunion of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, a folk / rock duo that split up in 1970 after the release of their 5th album Bridge Over Troubled Waters. Kicking the evening off with “Mrs. Robinson” (written for the 1967 film The Graduate and one of their biggest hits), Simon and Garfunkel then performed a number of their most popular tunes, including “Homeward Bound”, “The Boxer”, “Scarborough Fair”, and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”. Along with the songs they do together, The Concert in Central Park also features a few solo efforts from each performer, such as Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”, “Late in the Evening” and “The Late Great Johnny Ace” (which was briefly interrupted when an intoxicated fan ran onstage) as well as a beautiful tune by Art Garfunkel titled “A Heart in New York”. And how better to round out the evening than with a rendition of another of the duo’s early hits, “The Sounds of Silence”? At one point, we’re even treated to a cover version of the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie”.

Spurred on by The Concert in Central Park, I would, over the course of a year or so, buy every Simon and Garfunkel album I could get my hands on, not to mention most of Simon’s solo releases (his 1986 album Graceland is still one of my all-time favorites). For me, The Concert in Central Park will always be more than a great concert movie; I’ll also remember it as the film that introduced me to some of the finest music ever produced.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

#1,557. Heavy Traffic (1973)

Directed By: Ralph Bakshi

Starring: Joseph Kaufmann, Beverly Hope Atkinson, Frank DeKova

Tag line: "Heavy Entertainment!"

Trivia: Ralph Bakshi lists this as his favorite among his own films

As he did with his previous film Fritz the Cat, animator Ralph Bakshi explores the sleazier aspects of human nature in Heavy Traffic (only this time around, he uses actual humans to do so).

Twenty-something underground comic artist Michael Corleone (voiced by Joseph Kaufmann) still lives with his parents. His Italian father Angelo (Frank DeKova), a minor figure in organized crime, fights day and night with his Jewish mother Ida (Terri Haven), resulting in an uncomfortable, yet always interesting home life. Usually short on cash, Michael uses his drawings to coax free beers out of local African-American bartender Carole (Beverly Hope Atkinson). Following an argument with her boss, Carole quits her job, and on the way out is harassed by Shorty, a legless bar patron who’s taken a liking to her. In an effort to discourage Shorty’s attentions, Carole lies and tells him she and Michael are involved in a committed relationship. As a result, Michael (who’s been secretly in love with Carole for some time) invites the former bartender home with him, only to be told by his father that blacks aren’t welcome. To escape his family’s racist attitude, Michael and Carole do everything they can to raise enough money to move to California, at one point even going so far as to have Carole pose as a prostitute (whenever she brings a potential “customer” home with her, Michael beats the guy up and steals his money). Little do they know that Michael’s father, still fuming over his romance with a black woman, puts a contract out on his son’s life, and the only person he can get to do the job is Michael’s romantic rival, Shorty!

Though primarily an animated movie, Heavy Traffic occasionally contains actual footage of New York City (aside from the opening scene set in a pinball arcade, several sequences use real-life images of city streets as their backdrop), giving the film a convincingly urban feel and providing the perfect setting for its story of prostitutes, criminals, and transvestites. Like Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic features over-the-top characterizations that would be at home in most animated movies (Angelo’s and Ida’s arguments usually turn violent, though the damage they inflict upon one another is very cartoon-like), but at the same time doesn’t shy away from more serious subject matter like sex (Angelo hires an obese hooker to service his son) and violence (Snowflake, a transvestite that frequents the bar where Carole worked, is brutalized by a guy who initially thought he was a woman).

A humorous, often unflinching motion picture that tackles racism, domestic violence, and crime head-on, Heavy Traffic takes a long, hard look at life on the seedy side of town while also giving us plenty to laugh about.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

#1,556. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)

Directed By: Otis Turner

Starring: Bebe Daniels, Hobart Bosworth,, Robert Z. Leonard

Trivia: This movie was partly based on the 1902 stage musical

While browsing through the More Treasures from the American Archives collection, a 3-DVD set featuring movies made between 1894 and 1931 that have been preserved by various organizations (including the Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman collection), I came across a title too intriguing to pass up: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a 1910 short that marked the first time L. Frank Baum’s classic tale was ever produced for the screen.

Based on a 1902 stage play as opposed to the Baum novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz introduces us to Dorothy (portrayed by 10-year-old Bebe Daniels), a Kansas farm girl who, after discovering that her family’s scarecrow (Robert Z. Leonard) is alive, is swept up by a tornado and transported to the enchanted land of Oz. Joined by the Scarecrow, as well as such animals as her dog Toto, Hank the mule and a cow named Imogene, Dorothy makes her way through this magical kingdom, meeting such fascinating characters as the Tin Woodsman, a cowardly lion, and Glinda the Good Witch (Olive Cox). Alas, she also encounters Momba (Winifred Greenwod), an evil witch who’s tricked the Wizard of Oz (Hobart Bosworth) into handing his entire kingdom over to her. With nowhere to turn for help, the Wizard issues a decree stating that he’ll give his crown to whoever defeats Momba, a challenge Dorothy and her friends happily accept.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz does feature several elements present in both the novel and the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, including Dorothy’s encounter with the rusted Tin Woodsman and her final showdown with the witch. Yet what makes this film so interesting is how it differs from its more famous counterparts. Aside from bringing the scarecrow to life before the action shifts to Oz, this version also abandons such key plot points as Dorothy’s desire to return home (she seems content to stay in Oz forever) and the witch trying to get Dorothy to surrender the ruby slippers. In fact, this witch only wants one thing: to take control of Oz, and it’s up to Dorothy and her pals to stop her.

With elaborate set pieces and costumes that, though they appear silly now (especially those worn by Dorothy’s animal companions), were probably quite impressive back in the day, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a charming fantasy film that offers fans of the 1939 Hollywood classic a different take on the story they’ve come to love.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

#1,555. Funny Farm (1988)

Directed By: George Roy Hill

Starring: Chevy Chase, Madolyn Smith, Kevin O'Morrison

Tag line: "Chevy Chase finds life in the country isn't what it's cracked up to be!"

Trivia: This was director George Roy Hill's final movie as director

In films like Caddyshack and Fletch, Chevy Chase showed a penchant for playing wiseasses, but in my opinion, his true strength lies in portraying the eternal optimist. Arguably, his best role was that of Clark Griswold, the over-exuberant father in the Vacation movies (two of which, the 1983 original and ‘89’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, are flat-out hilarious). In Funny Farm he plays a character a lot like Clark: a regular guy who views the world through rose-colored glasses, only to have his hopes and dreams dashed by forces outside his control.

New York Sportswriter Andy Farmer (Chase) is leaving the city behind and moving to the country, where he intends to write his first novel. Using the $10,000 advance the publisher gave him, Andy and his wife Elizabeth (Madolyn Smith) pack up their belongings and head north to Vermont, settling down in a picturesque cottage situated in the village of Redbud. Expecting to find a community similar to the ones Normal Rockwell captured in his famous Saturday Evening Post illustrations, the Farmers are disappointed to learn that Redbud is, in fact, an awful place to live. Aside from the swarming bugs and other assorted wildlife (including snakes), the locals themselves are as ornery as can be; the mailman (Kevin Conway) is a drunk who never slows down to deliver the mail (he simply tosses the letters onto the ground as he speeds by), and the town’s sheriff (Kevin O’Morrison) doesn’t even know how to drive! Add to that the discovery of a dead body in their garden, and you have a dream home that quickly turns into a nightmare. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, Andy’s also having some difficulty writing his novel, and to make matters worse, Katherine, who previously worked as a school teacher, pens a children’s book that’s so good the publishers are fighting over it! His hopes shattered, Andy seeks solace in a bottle, threatening to bring both his career and his marriage to a crashing end.

From the moment he leaves New York, things don’t go well for poor Andy. Thanks to a piss-poor map (that he himself drew), the movers get lost, and don’t show up until the following morning; and the phone company mistakenly installs a payphone in the kitchen! Elizabeth also faces her share of challenges. It’s she who discovers the body in the garden, which, after it’s exhumed and reburied, results in a $4,000 bill from the funeral home (according to the law, the Farmers are obliged to pay it). The funniest scenes, however, involve Andy’s and Elizabeth’s run-ins with the locals. A fishing tournament that Andy takes part in ends disastrously, as does a visit to the Redbud diner, where Andy sets the record for most “lamb fries” eaten in a single sitting (before realizing that “lamb fries” is a fancy name for sheep’s testacies). The film’s last act, during which the townsfolk are bribed to “act normally”, finally turns Redbud into the kind of community Andy had hoped for, but it proves too little, too late.

Along with being a strong “fish out of water” story, Funny Farm is also an incredibly underrated comedy, every bit as good as anything Chase has done before or since. If you haven’t already seen it, do yourself a favor and watch Funny Farm as soon as you can.

And be ready to laugh.

Monday, November 17, 2014

#1,554. Desperate Living (1977)

Directed By: John Waters

Starring: Liz Renay, Mink Stole, Susan Lowe

Tag line: "It isn't very pretty....."

Trivia: Newspapers refused to run the original ad for this film, a photo of a cooked rat on a plate

Immediately after the opening credits sequence (which, for the record, features a cooked rat sitting on a dinner plate), John Waters’ Desperate Living takes us to an average suburban neighborhood, with kids playing baseball in the front yard of what appears to be a beautiful, spacious home. If normalcy is your thing, make sure you pay close attention to these first few minutes because this is as “normal” as the movie is going to get. If, however, you’re a John Waters fan, and you enjoy the occasional trek into the world of trash cinema, then hold onto your seats; Desperate Living is about to take you on a ride you won’t soon forget.

The fun begins when one of the kids hits a baseball through an upstairs window, causing housewife Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole), who’s just returned home from a stay at a mental institution, to lose complete control of herself (she shouts out the window at the young boy who hit the ball, accusing him of trying to kill her and adding that she hates both him and his mother). It’s during this fit of rage that Peggy, with the help of her nurse Grizelda (Jean Hill), accidentally murders her husband Bosley (George Stover). Realizing what they’ve done, the two women try to flee, only to be tracked down by a transvestite policeman (Turkey Joe) who, instead of dragging them off to jail, banishes Peggy and Grizelda to Mortville, a makeshift town ruled by Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey) that’s home to some of the worst scum imaginable. Shortly after their arrival, Peggy and Grizelda meet Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe) and her lover Muffy St, Jacques (Liz Renay), who rent the newbies a room. But when the Queen discovers that her only daughter Princess Coo-Coo (Mary Vivian Pierce) has been dating a nudist garbage man named Herbert (George Figgs), it sends shock waves throughout all of Mortville, causing some residents to take up arms and rebel against the Queen and her tyrannical ways.

Yes, it’s a very strange synopsis, but not nearly as strange as the characters that inhabit this bizarre world. As played by Mink Stole, Peggy Gravel is an unstable upper-class snob with a persecution complex; after the incident with the baseball, she screams into the telephone at a caller who dialed the wrong number. The caller tries to apologize, but Peggy will have none of it. “How can you ever repay the last thirty seconds you have stolen from my life?” she shouts, adding “I hate you, your husband, your children, and your relatives!” While slightly more together than her employer, Mrs. Gravel’s nurse Grizelda has issues of her own (an obese kleptomaniac, it’s she who kills Mr. Gravel by sitting on his face and smothering him).

It’s when the ladies hit the road, however, that we meet some truly disturbed people, like the cop who steals their underwear, then orders both women to give him a kiss. He’s the one who tells them to hightail it to Mortville, where they encounter Mole and Muffy, two lesbians who once led semi-normal lives. During a flashback sequence, we learn that Muffy had a husband (Roland Hertz) and young son (Damien Overhosler). After returning home from a night out, Muffy discovered that the babysitter they hired (Pirie Woods) had invited her friends over for a party, during which she forgot to keep an eye on her son. When Muffy found the toddler crying inside a closed refrigerator (a very controversial scene when the film was first released), she got so angry that she murdered the babysitter by pushing her face into a bowl of dog food. She’s been hiding out in Mortville ever since. As for the extremely hostile Mole, she was a professional wrestler who came to Mortville after killing an opponent. It’s Mole’s hope that she can one day afford a sex change operation, at which point she’ll finally be the man Muffy deserves. Most outrageous of all is Queen Carlotta, an insane ruler whose ridiculous decrees have made her unpopular with her subjects. Portrayed by Edith Massey (who played the egg-loving Edie in Waters’ 1972 classic Pink Flamingos), Queen Carlotta is surrounded by leather-clad henchmen she forces to have sex with her (Desperate Living doesn’t shy away from sexual content, but beware: not a single sex scene in this film is the least bit erotic. In fact, they’re all pretty disgusting).

A movie filled to the breaking point with hilarious dialogue and outlandish situations, Desperate Living is an equal opportunity offender, taking shots at everyone from doctors and policeman to lesbians and nudists. Featuring 90 minutes of total insanity, Desperate Living is John Waters at his gross-out best.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

#1,553. Black Mask (1996)

Directed By: Daniel Lee

Starring: Jet Li, Ching Wan Lau, Karen Mok

Line from this film: "Nobody ever bothers a librarian"

Trivia: In homage to The Green Hornet, Black Mask wears a domino mask and chauffeur's cap in the same style as Kato from the series

Yuen Wo Ping, the legendary martial arts choreographer who helped design the fight sequences for The Matrix and Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, brought his unique talents to the 1996 Hong-Kong crime / action film Black Mask, a movie about a secret government project that transformed normal men and women into superhuman soldiers.

Michael (Jet Li) was one of the test subjects of said project, which was designated “701” by the government organization that developed it. After receiving a round of injections (administered directly into his brain), Michael and a group of others become the perfect fighting machines, beings with lightning-fast reflexes and a high threshold for pain. Over time, Project 701 proved too dangerous to maintain, and as a result, an order was issued that all traces of it, including its test subjects, be destroyed. Following an intense battle (during which he takes out dozens of military troops), Michael escapes, and immediately goes into hiding.

One year later, Michael, using the assumed name Simon, is working as a mild-mannered Honk Kong librarian, spending his days reading books and playing chess with his uptight best friend, Rock (Ching Wan Lau), a police detective. Through Rock, Michael learns about a vigilante group that’s knocking off key members of the city’s drug cartels, and based on the methods they’re using, he determines it’s the work of his fellow 701 survivors. Realizing he’s the only one capable of stopping them, Michael dons a mask and tries to end their reign of terror, putting both himself and those closest to him, including Det. Rock and his pretty co-worker Tracy (Karen Mok), in harm’s way.

The combination of Yuen Wo Ping and Jet Li (who also collaborated on such films as Unleashed and Fearless) is a winning one, and together the two bring a raw energy to the movie’s various action sequences. Along with its over-the-top opening battle, in which Michael takes on an entire army by himself, Black Mask treats us to several well-staged martial arts fights, highlighted by Michael’s attempts to stop his former colleagues (who he faces off against on a number of occasions, culminating in a wildly entertaining final showdown). Also holding his own in the action department is co-star Ching Wan Lau, who dukes it out with some of 701’s super soldiers while in a hospital guarding a prisoner (a fight scene that ranks as one of the film’s most energetic).

At times both a comedy (Karen Mok’s Tracy, a hyper young woman who gets herself into all sorts of trouble, serves as the movie’s comic relief) and a superhero flick (When Michael puts on the mask, he looks exactly like Kato from The Green Hornet), Black Mask is, first and foremost, an action film, and, thanks to the fine work of its entire cast and crew, it’s an entertaining one to boot.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

#1,552. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

Directed By: Jack Sholder

Starring: Robert Englund, Mark Patton, Kim Myers

Tag line: "The Man of Your Dreams Is Back"

Trivia: Freddy appears in only 13 of this film's 87 minutes

In most horror movie franchises, the second film in the series, while not as good as the original, is usually an entertaining effort. Halloween 2 carried the story of Michael Myers to its next logical point, while Friday the 13th Part 2 established Jason Voorhees (who only makes a cameo appearance in the first movie) as the killer. There are a number of examples to support this "2nd movie" theory: Scream 2 was a lot of fun, as was Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, and even Child’s Play 2 had its moments. Naturally, there are exceptions; Exorcist II the Heretic was awful, as was 1989’s The Fly 2. But for me, the worst direct sequel to a classic horror film is 1985’s Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, a picture that took everything that worked about its predecessor and tossed it out the window.

Teenager Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) and his family, which includes his father Ken (Clu Galager); mom Cheryl (Hope Lange) and little sister Angela (Christie Clark), have just moved into the house on Elm St. that once belonged to the Thompsons, who, years earlier, were tormented by Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), a sadistic killer who attacked his victims while they slept, invading their dreams and turning them into nightmares. Now, with a new family to torment, Freddy focuses his attention on Jesse, visiting him as he sleeps and telling the young man he plans to “use” him to commit more murders. Unable to discuss this horrific dilemma with his parents (with whom he a tenuous relationship), Jesse turns to his new girlfriend Lisa (Kim Myers) and school chum Ron (Robert Rusler) for help. But no matter how hard he tries to resist, Freddy Krueger still manages to take control of Jesse’s body, and in so doing brings his unique brand of terror to the real world.

Therein lies the chief problem with Nightmare on Elm Street 2. In the first movie, Freddy Krueger slaughtered people when they were at their most vulnerable (i.e. asleep), giving him the edge in every single encounter (A permanent resident of the world of dreams, he knew how to manipulate things to his advantage). By allowing Freddy to leave the dream world, the movie strips him of his key power, turning the notorious killer into just another madman on a murder spree (and not a frightening one, either; a late scene, where he attacks a group of teens at a pool party, doesn’t feature a single memorable kill). To add insult to injury, the filmmakers never explain why Freddy suddenly decided to change his modus operandi, leaving us scratching our heads and wondering why he’d mess with a good thing.

The movie has other issues as well. For one, there are scenes so remarkably bad that they’re almost laughable (one sequence involving a couple of parakeets was particularly inept). On top of that, we’re treated to a handful of moments that are creepy for all the wrong reasons, like when Jesse, during one of his sleepwalking episodes, visits an S&M gay bar and, while there, runs into his gym teacher, Coach Schnieder (Marshall Bell), who promptly drags Jesse back to the school auditorium (after hours, no less) and punishes the underage teen for trying to order a beer. Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge definitely has homoerotic overtones (aside from the fact lead actor Mark Patton had, by the time he made the movie, already come out of the closet, there’s the relationship between Jesse and Ron, which felt as if it was more than just friendship). In many ways, it's the first openly gay slasher film, but even still, this scene with the teacher was too weird for words.

Believing 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street should stand on its own, that film’s writer / director, Wes Craven, refused to have anything to do with this sequel, and after seeing the final product I can’t say I blame him. Devoid of thrills, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is a dismal horror movie.