Tuesday, November 25, 2014

#1,562. The Madness of King George (1994)

Directed By: Nicholas Hytner

Starring: Nigel Hawthorne, Helen Mirren, Ian Holm

Tag line: "His Majesty was all powerful and all knowing. But he wasn't quite all there"

Trivia: Helen Mirren won the Best Actress Award and Nicholas Hytner was nominated for the Golden Palm at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival

Prior to 1994’s The Madness of King George, everything I knew about England’s George III I learned from history books (and seeing as he was the reigning monarch during the American Revolution, those books weren’t always kind to him). The Madness of King George gave me a slightly better understanding of the man beneath the crown, but more than this, the movie shines a light on the political wrangling that resulted from his illness, revealing just how far people are willing to go when absolute power is on the line.

King George III (Nigel Hawthorne, reprising the role he played in the stage production) has ruled England for almost 30 years. While a loving husband to his Queen, Charlotte (Helen Mirren), the mother of his 15 children, George’s relationship with his eldest son, the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett) is contentious at best. A ruler who’s never afraid to speak his mind, George meets regularly with both his Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (Julian Wadham) and his Lord Chancellor Thurlow (John Wood) to discuss the current state of the nation, all the while lamenting the fact that America is no longer part of Great Britain. A normally robust man, George’s health takes a sudden turn for the worse following a severe stomach cramp, after which he begins to act erratically, shouting obscenities and behaving in a way that suggests he’s losing his mind. Despite the combined efforts of three different physicians, George’s mental health continues to deteriorate, thus clearing the way for Parliament’s opposition party, led by Charles Fox (Jim Catrer), to try passing a bill that would make The Prince of Wales the King’s Regent (essentially turning the country over to him). Realizing the king’s well-being has a direct impact on their own political careers, Pitt and Thurlow hire Dr. Willis (Ian Holm) to treat His Majesty, hoping his unorthodox methods will help the king regain his senses in time to save his crown.

Nigel Hawthorne is amazing as George III, delivering a performance that’s as hilarious as it is poignant; one morning, after rousing his servants out of bed at an ungodly hour, George takes off running in his nightgown, prancing through a pasture as his confused attendants, which includes new arrival Grenville (Rupert Graves), try to keep up with him. The king even makes passes at the beautiful Lady Pembroke (Amanda Donohue), the Queen’s Lady in Waiting, going so far as to force himself upon her. Along with exploring the king’s mental state, The Madness of King George shows us, in no uncertain terms, just how archaic healthcare practices were during this time. Dr. Warren (Geoffrey Palmer), who’s loyal to the Prince of Wales, tries drawing the king’s illness down to his lower extremities by way of a painful treatment involving candles and glass jars, while Dr. Pepys (Cyril Shaps) spends hours examining the king’s piss pot, hoping his urine and stool will shed some light on his condition.

The Madness of King George also delves into the political arena, at which point the movie takes its most disturbing turn. Having learned a little something about King George the man, we watch in horror as the Prince of Wales and Charles Fox join forces to discredit His Majesty; despite his father’s fragile psyche, the Prince organizes a concert in the hopes the king will make a public spectacle of himself, thus clearing the way for him to be named Regent. Even Pitt the Younger, who supports the king, is fighting for his own political survival (if the Prince becomes Regent, he’ll appoint Charles Fox Prime Minister, which means Pitt would be out of a job). As we bear witness to Parliament’s corruption and backroom dealings, we can’t help but feel an affinity for those who truly care about the King’s health, including the Queen, Dr.Willis, Lady Pembroke, and Grenville. Through it all, they continue working for the man himself, while everyone else concentrates on his crown and the power it provides.

An often funny, occasionally moving account of a ruler in turmoil, The Madness of King George was an eye-opening experience.

Monday, November 24, 2014

#1,561. The Cannonball Run (1981)

Directed By: Hal Needham

Starring: Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett

Tag line: "You'll root for them all...but you'll never guess who wins"

Trivia: Burt Reynolds received a then-record $5 million salary for his work on this film (his part took three weeks to finish)

Hal Needham’s The Cannonball Run isn’t so much a movie as it is a party on film. As you’re watching it, you get the feeling that everyone had a great time making the picture, a hunch that’s verified once the final credits roll (when we’re treated to the outtakes, which feature plenty of laughter and goofing around). Considering the film’s high level of frivolity, I’m betting a good number of you will find The Cannonball Run a tedious motion picture, but as someone who watched it continuously on cable TV, I admit to being a fan. Yes, The Cannonball Run feels like a party, but at least the audience was invited as well.

The story is as thin as they come: The Cannonball, an annual cross-country car race from Connecticut to California, is set to begin, and contestants are lining up to participate. Of course, if they’re to have any chance of winning, the racers will have to drive well over the speed limit, forcing them to find “creative” ways to avoid being stopped by the police. Plot-wise, that’s all there is; like I said, it’s pretty thin stuff. One thing that’s not thin, however, is the cast, which has more than a dozen recognizable personalities. Burt Reynolds stars as JJ McClure, who, along with his mechanic Victor (Dom DeLuise), is driving what he believes is a vehicle no cop will dare mess with: an ambulance! They’ve even managed to secure a physician for the trip, the alcoholic proctologist Dr. Van Helsing (Jack Elam), and kidnap a sexy young woman named Pamela Glover (Farrah Fawcett) to pose as the patient they’re transporting. Prior to being lured into the ambulance, Pamela was the assistant of Mr. Arthur J. Foyt (George Furth), a representative of the Safety Enforcement Unit who’s trying to shut the race down. As if the kidnapping charge hanging over his head wasn’t enough, JJ also has to deal with Victor’s “alter ego”, an obnoxious superhero named Captain Chaos whose personality can take over Victor’s body without a moment’s notice.

Racing against JJ and Victor are a pair of gamblers in a red Ferrari dressed as Catholic priests (Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.); two bodacious babes (Tara Buckman and Adrienne Barbeau) in a Lamborghini; An Asian racer (Jackie Chan) and his mechanic (Michael Hull) in a souped-up Subaru hatchback; A wealthy Sheik from the Middle East (Jamie Farr) in a Rolls Royce; Two country bumpkins (Football great Terry Bradshaw and country singer Mel Tillis) in a replica NASCAR racer; playboy millionaire Brad Compton (Bert Convy) and his asscoaite Finch (Warren Berlinger), who disguise themselves as a newlywed couple and climb on Compton’s motorcycle; a pair of tow-truck drivers (Rick Aviles and Alfie Wise) who have a close call with a freight train; and actor Roger Moore (as himself), who, still in the throes of playing super spy James Bond, drives an Aston Martin (what else?). Along the way, the teams do everything they can to sabotage one another while, at the same time, avoiding the cops as they speed from sea to shining sea. But who will cross the finish line first?

As comedies go, The Cannonball Run is pretty standard stuff. As expected, much of the humor stems from the contestants sniping at one another, tossing out insults (Sammy Davis Jr. is called “shorty” more than once) and bragging they’ll be the first to reach California. Even more predictable is the fact every vehicle is eventually pulled over by the police, forcing the drivers to think on their feet (instead of talking their way out of a ticket, Buckman and Barbeau simply unzip their skintight race suits and show the approaching officer a little cleavage, which usually does the trick). On top of that, the movie is a bit of a mess story-wise; some scenes are thrown in that have nothing to do with the race (the drivers, stopped by road construction, get into a fistfight with a biker gang headed up by Peter Fonda), and a few characters fall by the wayside before the film ends (Jamie Farr’s Sheik disappears after a scene or two). What makes it so entertaining, though, is the energy Needham and his performers bring to the table, and the fact that each and every one of them had an absolute blast, laughing it up and joking around both in front of the camera and behind it.

With its cast and crew having so much fun, it’s easy get caught up in the movie, and if you’re willing to overlook its problems, The Cannonball Run will be one hell of a ride.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

#1,560. The Fortune Cookie (1966)

Directed By: Billy Wilder

Starring: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ron Rich

Tag line: "Some people will do anything for $249,000.92"

Trivia: Several scenes were filmed at the Minnesota Vikings vs. Cleveland Browns game, held at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on the afternoon of Halloween 1965

Director Billy Wilder, who was responsible for some of the best motion pictures ever made, worked in a number of different genres throughout his career. After practically inventing film-noir with Double Indemnity, Wilder would go on to direct hard-hitting dramas (The Lost Weekend), lighthearted romances (Sabrina), a brilliant courtroom thriller (Witness for the Prosecution), a biopic (The Spirit of St. Louis), and a funny wartime flick that was also an intriguing mystery (Stalag 17). In addition, he helmed a number of great comedies, including The Seven-Year Itch, Some Like it Hot, and One Two Three. Of them all, though, the funniest is 1966’s The Fortune Cookie, a movie that features the first onscreen pairing of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, who, after this film, would appear together nine more times (The Odd Couple being my personal favorite).

Harry Hinkle (Lemmon), an on-field cameraman for CBS Sports, ends up in the hospital when star football player Luther 'Boom Boom' Jackson (Ron Rich) accidentally bowls him over during a game. This near-calamity sparks the imagination of Harry’s brother-in-law, Willie Gingrich (Matthau), a lawyer who specializes in frivolous lawsuits. Sensing a huge cash settlement, Willie tries to convince Harry (who’s not really hurt) to fake a lower back injury. At first reluctant to go along with this scheme, Harry changes his tune when Willie convinces him that a huge payday might help him win back his ex-wife Sandy (Judi West), who Harry never stopped loving. But to pull this scam off, the two are going to have to outwit Purkey (Cliff Osmond), an investigator with the insurance company who’s convinced Harry is faking his injuries.

Along with its clever script (co-written by Wilder and I.A.L Diamond), The Fortune Cookie owes its success to the fine performances of its two stars. Lemmon’s Harry is something of a sad sack (a lonely guy who longs to reunite with his conniving ex), yet he’s also basically a good guy, and has second thoughts about faking his injury when he sees how guilty Boom Boom Jackson feels for having caused him so much pain. Lemmon has his share of funny moments (the scene where the insurance company is subjecting him to a round of tests is particularly funny), but its Matthau’s fast-talking Willie who steals the show. The first time we meet him, Willie is in his office talking with Mr. Cimoli (Howard McNear), a prospective client. It seems poor Mr. Cimoli was injured when he slipped on a banana peel while walking out of a small neighborhood delicatessen. “Too bad it didn’t happen further down the street in front of the May Company. From them you can collect”, Willie tells a surprised Mr. Cimoli, adding “Couldn’t you have dragged yourself another twenty feet?” Willie is a cad throughout the entirety of The Fortune Cookie, and Matthau’s performance is so good that it won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

While his career after The Fortune Cookie was hit-and-miss (1974’s The Front Page and 1981’s Buddy Buddy, both of which also featured Matthau and Lemmon, were absolute duds), Wilder’s overall body of work is damned impressive, and its movies like The Fortune Cookie that have cemented his place in Hollywood history.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

#1,559. She-Devils on Wheels (1968)

Directed By: Herschell Gordon Lewis

Starring: Betty Connell, Nancy Lee Noble, Christie Wagner

Tag line: "Red Hot Mamas From Hell!"

Trivia: Most of the actresses playing bikers were actual bikers

A female biker flick directed by the great Herschell Gordon Lewis? Sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it?

And 1968’s She-Devils on Wheels is awesome… in spurts.

The leader of the biker gang in question, aka the Man-Eaters, is Queen (Betty Connell), a tough broad who never backs down from a fight. As the story opens, the Man-Eaters are racing against one another for the right to choose first from their “collection” of men (whoever wins the race gets first choice of their male companion for the evening). While the gang’s credo has always been “all men are mothers”, one of their regular members, the demure Karen (Christie Wagner), usually chooses Bill (David Harris) as her “date”, leading Queen and the others, including Whitey (Pat Poston) and Terry (Ruby Tuesday), to conclude that Karen is in love with him. So, to test her loyalty, the girls tie a beaten and bloodied Bill to the back of Karen’s motorcycle and force her to drag him down a dirt path (which she does, reluctantly). As if that wasn’t bad enough, Karen’s standing is further threatened when her old boyfriend Ted (Rodney Bedell) begs her to quit the gang before she ends up in jail, or worse.

And “worse” is definitely in the cards thanks to a continuing turf war with Joe-Boy (John Weymer) and his gang of Hot-Rodders. After being trounced by Queen and her gals in a fight, Joe-Boy and his thugs decide to exact their revenge by kidnapping Honey Pot (Nancy Lee Noble), the Man-Eaters’ newest member, and beating her to a pulp. As expected, Queen doesn’t take too kindly to this, and hatches a scheme that might just land her and the entire gang in prison… for life.

As I alluded to above, She-Devils on Wheels isn’t without its charms. While acting has never been the strong point of any Herschell Gordon Lewis film, the cast of She-Devils on Wheels benefits from the fact that most of the women portraying gang members are actual bikers, and though their performances are somewhat weak, each and every one is believable in their role (especially Betty Connell, whose Queen is equal parts hero and villain). She-Devils on Wheels also boasts a few fun scenes, including Honey Pot’s initiation ceremony and the rumble with Joe-Boy and his Hot-Rodders. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Herschell Gordon Lewis film without some gore (a key sequence towards the end of the movie gets a little messy).

Alas, there are things about She-Devils on Wheels that simply don’t work. For one, the supposed “orgies” that the Man-Eaters engage in on a nightly basis are about as erotic as watching a group of teens playing “spin the bottle” (despite having directed a number of nudie cuties in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, Lewis shied away from nudity later in his career, and She-Devils on Wheels shows no skin whatsoever). Lewis also seemed to like following the girls around on their bikes, and as a result large sections of the movie show them speeding up and down the street over and over again (the opening race goes on for way too long). And while the moment of gore is definitely a high point, the film’s effects fall well short of Lewis’ normal standard.

An occasionally fun motion picture, She-Devils on Wheels nonetheless pales in comparison to such Herschell Gordon Lewis gore-themed classics as Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs and The Wizard of Gore.

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.