Sunday, November 30, 2014

#1,567. Tin Toy (1988)

Directed By: John Lasseter

Trivia: Considered to be a prequel to Toy Story. The baby in the short film is considered to be Andy Davis, the owner of Woody, Buzz Lightyer and the other toys in the Toy Story film

I continue my look at Pixar’s short films with 1988’s Tin Toy, winner of the 1989 Academy Award for Best Animated Short, the first time the studio would claim this particular honor (it was also the 1st computer-generated flick to win the award). More than this, though, Tin Toy inspired the feature film that put Pixar on the map: 1995’s Toy Story, making it perhaps the most important 5-minute movie director John Lasseter and his crew ever turned out.

Tinny, a small mechanical one-man band, is horrified at the prospect of being played with by Billy, a very destructive infant. After watching Billy toss around and chew on his other toys, Tinny tries to escape by hiding underneath a sofa, where he finds dozens of other toys, each as petrified of Billy as he is, cowering in the dark. But when Billy accidentally falls on the hardwood floor, Tinny feels bad for him, and wanders into the open to allow the youngster to play with him. Things take an unexpected turn, however, when Billy instead turns his attention towards the box Tinny was packaged in!

Originally created to promote a new piece of software, Tin Toy instead attracted the attention of Disney studios, who, through the mid-90s and 00’s, teamed up with Pixar to produce a number of groundbreaking animated films, starting with Toy Story. Like Toy Story, Tin Toy brought a normally inanimate object to life and, in the process, infused it with personality. Tinny’s initial fear of Billy, which caused him to flee, soon gives way to pity and remorse as he listens to the infant crying his eyes out (the result of his falling down). Even though he knows what he’s in for, Tinny leaves his safe place under the sofa, sacrificing his own well-being to calm Billy down (this notion that a toy’s main objective is to make its owner happy would be further explored in Toy Story and its sequels).

Though rough around the edges (Billy’s movements are a bit too jerky at times), Tin Toy, more than any other short, laid the groundwork for what was to come, and in the process helped transform Pixar into one of the most successful studios of the last 25 years.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

#1,566. Joshua (1976)

Directed By: Larry G. Spangler

Starring: Fred Williamson, Cal Bartlett, Brenda Venus

Line from the film: "Five? I killed nearly twice that many in the war"

Trivia: This movie was also released as Black Rider

The screenplay for Joshua, a 1976 low-budget western, was written by “The Hammer” himself, Mr. Fred Williamson, star of such ‘70s blaxploitation classics as Black Caesar and Bucktown. This, along with the fact that Williamson also plays the title role, should have been enough to make Joshua a worthwhile experience for genre fans. Alas, its weaknesses outweigh its strengths, and in the end, the movie wasn’t nearly as entertaining as I hoped it would be.

The U.S. Civil War is over. Sam (Henry Kendrick), a rancher, lives on a spacious plot of land in Monument Valley with his mail-order bride (Brenda Venus) and his maid, Martha (Kathryn Jackson). One day, Martha receives a letter from her son, Joshua (Williamson), telling her that, now that the war is over, his tour of duty with the U.S. Cavalry is at an end, and he’s coming home to see her. Before he arrives, however, a band of thieves, led by a cutthroat named Jed (Cal Bartlett), shows up at the ranch. Having taken a liking to Sam’s new bride, Jed decides to kidnap her. When Sam protests, Jed shoots him in the shoulder, then turns his gun on Martha, murdering her in cold blood. The next day, a newly-arrived Joshua is informed of his mother’s death. Using his military training, he tracks her killers over mountains and through the driving snow, forcing the gang to ride further than they ever have before. But Joshua has no intention of letting a single one escape their fate, and is ready to chase them to the ends of the earth to exact his own brand of justice.

Joshua does, on occasion, show promise, most of which comes courtesy of its star. As expected, Williamson is superb in the title role, putting his own unique spin on the “Man with No Name” persona by portraying Joshua as a loner; a former soldier who relies on his wartime experiences to hunt down those responsible for killing his beloved mother. With nothing left to live for but revenge, Joshua dedicates his every waking moment to seeing that it’s carried out. He speaks very little (his guns talk loud enough), and pity anyone who stands in his way (one particular showdown with three guys in a bar is over before you can blink). With his tough demeanor and no-nonsense attitude, Williamson’s Joshua is the quintessential anti-hero, the kind of character made popular in the Spaghetti Westerns of the ‘60s and ‘70s. His performance, coupled with the beautiful Monument Valley setting, make Joshua a movie I come damn close to recommending.

Unfortunately, I can’t; its problems are far too numerous to ignore. Aside from Williamson and Cal Bartlett, who’s quite good as Jed, the remainder of the cast is fairly weak (Ralph Willingham, who portrays Weasel, a member of Jed’s gang, gets my vote as the most annoying God-damned outlaw in the history of western films. His constant, and often indistinct, muttering is bad enough, but Weasel also has a cackle more shrill than the Witch in The Wizard of Oz). Even more problematic than the performances is the film’s pacing. Too much time is dedicated to showing characters riding around on horseback, which, more often than not, slows the movie to a crawl (nearly every action scene is followed by at least a minute or two of riding). We also have no idea why Joshua decides to take the outlaws out one-by-one. Many times throughout the film, he’s given a chance to end his quest with a couple well-placed shots. Why he chooses to act so slowly, not to mention so elaborately (instead of shooting one guy, he climbs onto the roof and drops a rope around his neck, strangling him to death), is never once explained, leaving me with the distinct feeling it was done solely to pad the film’s running time.

A movie I was looking forward to seeing, Joshua proved to be one of the bigger disappointments I’ve had since I started this challenge. I really wanted to like Joshua, and it pains me to say it didn’t live up to my expectations.

Friday, November 28, 2014

#1,565. Night Monster (1942)

Directed By: Ford Beebe

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Leif Erickson

Tag line: "What kind of a thing is it?"

Trivia: In the UK, this movie was released as House of Mystery

Bela Lugosi is the top-billed star of 1942’s Night Monster, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. His role, while not minor, is definitely a supporting one (he plays a butler), and the majority of HIS scenes are of little consequence (most of the time, he’s lurking in the background). But no matter; even without Lugosi, Night Monster is a spooky, sometimes bewildering, often engaging motion picture.

Wealthy invalid Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan), who as the result of several botched operations was left paralyzed, invites the three doctors who performed his surgeries (played by Lionel Atwill, Frank Reicher, and Francis Pierlot) to his mansion for the weekend, where they’ll witness something amazing. Now under the care of a Hindu Yogi named Agor Singh (Nils Asther), Mr. Ingston is convinced he’s stumbled upon a miraculous new method to treat paralysis, one he’s anxious to share with the world. Along with the trio of surgeons, psychiatrist Dr. Lynn Harper (Irene Harvey) also shows up, having been summoned by Ingston’s sister Margaret (Fay Helm), who’s convinced she’s losing her mind. But what starts as a pleasant weekend soon turns deadly when one of the surgeons is found murdered in their room. Aided by writer (and Ingston family friend) Dick Baldwin (Don Porter), Dr. Harper tries to get to the bottom of this perplexing mystery, only to find her efforts thwarted by the housekeeper (Doris Lloyd), butler (Lugosi) and Chauffeur (Leif Erickson), all of whom seem to be hiding something. But the question remains: who (or what) is killing the guests of Ingston Manor, and how long will it be before Dr. Harper herself becomes the next victim?

Night Monster has a lot going for it, from the fine performances delivered by its impressive cast to its handful of creepy scenes. One in particular, where Milly (Janet Shaw), a former maid at the Ingston mansion, is attacked and killed by an unknown creature while walking home one evening, is handled quite well; we know something bad is about to happen to the poor girl the moment everything goes silent (not even a cricket can be heard). In addition, Night Monster presents us with both an intriguing mystery (one that grows more complex with each passing scene) and a very cool sequence in which the Yogi conjures up a skeleton out of mid-air!

A fascinating film, Night Monster is proof positive that, even when it comes to Universal Studio’s black and white horror outings, there are hidden gems waiting to be found.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

#1,564. The Pink Panther (1963)

Directed By: Blake Edwards

Starring: David Niven, Peter Sellers, Robert Wagner

Tag line: "You only live once... so see The Pink Panther twice!!!"

Trivia: Yves Saint Laurent created the gowns for Capucine and Claudia Cardinale. This was the designer's first Hollywood film project

The majority of the Pink Panther sequels, from 1964’s A Shot in the Dark all the way up to 1978’s The Revenge of the Pink Panther, put the focus squarely on Inspector Jacques Clouseau, the bumbling French detective played by Peter Sellers. This is what makes The Pink Panther, the 1963 original, such an interesting motion picture; unlike the other entries in the series, Clouseau was originally supposed to be a supporting character in this film. In fact, you might even say he’s the villain of the piece. Of course, with an actor as talented as Peter Sellers in the role, this so-called "supporting" character quickly took center stage.

Despite his worldly demeanor, British playboy Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven) is, in reality, The Phantom, a notorious thief whose specialty is fine jewelry. In an interesting twist, Sir Charles’ accomplice and lover, the beautiful Simone (Capucine), is actually the wife of Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Sellers), the very man who has sworn to bring The Phantom to justice! All three converge on a ski resort in the small Italian town of Cortina d'Ampezzo, where Princess Dala (Claudia Cardinale), owner of the fabled Pink Panther diamond, is vacationing. In an effort to steal the Pink Panther, Sir Charles cozies up to the Princess, only to discover he actually has feelings for her. This, combined with the sudden and unexpected arrival of Sir Charles’ American nephew George (Robert Wagner), puts the entire plan in jeopardy. What’s more, Clouseau, who has no idea his wife is deceiving him, believes he’s closing in on the Phantom, and, in an attempt to capture him, doubles the guard around the Pink Panther. Unbeknownst to all, someone else is also after the diamond, resulting in a weekend none of them will soon forget.

Directed by Blake Edwards, The Pink Panther is a sophisticated caper comedy, with David Niven at his dashing best as the worldly Sir Charles. The scenes in which he’s trying to woo the Princess have an almost regal feel to them, and his ability to remain calm in any situation is the mark of a true gentleman. Yet as debonair as Niven is in the role of Sir Charles, The Pink Panther belongs to a bumbling idiot, namely Inspector Jacques Clouseau. Despite playing what was essentially a supporting character, Peter Sellers was given ample opportunity throughout The Pink Panther to show the world how gifted a comedian he was; at one point, Clouseau burns his fingers on a fireplace, then tries to cool them in a beer stein that his associate Tucker (Colin Gordon) is drinking from (naturally, his hand gets stuck in it). Yet as funny as the slapstick and pratfalls are, Clouseau’s best scenes take place in the hotel room he shares with his wife (one in particular, where Simone is trying to conceal the fact that both Sir Charles and George are hiding in the room, is absolutely hilarious).

Though initially intended as a vehicle for Niven, The Pink Panther will instead be remembered as the film that introduced Jacques Clouseau to the movie-going public, thus earning it a place of honor in the Pantheon of comedy history.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

#1,563. Chopping Mall (1986)

Directed By: Jim Wynorski

Starring: Kelli Maroney, Tony O'Dell, Russell Todd

Tag line: "Buy or Die"

Trivia: Director Jim Wynorski provided the voices of the three Protector robots

Had I seen director Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall when it was first released in 1986, odds are I would have enjoyed it. It’s a cheesy movie, but it does have a few things going for it, including its setting (a shopping mall) and cast of characters (some of whom I took a liking to almost immediately).

Alas, this was the first time I ever watched Chopping Mall, and while it does have a certain nostalgic charm to it, it ultimately fails as a horror movie.

Four couples: Greg (Nick Segal) and Suzie (Barbara Crampton); Mike (John Terlesky) and Leslie ()Suzee Slater); Rick (Russell Todd) and Linda (Karrie Emerson), who are married; and Ferdy (Tony O’Dell) and Allison (Kelli Maroney), who only just met, hold a party at the mall furniture store where several of the guys work. What they don’t know is their shindig is about to be crashed by a trio of high-tech security robots, which were unveiled a few hours earlier. Programmed to keep the mall safe from intruders, the robots instead go on a killing spree when their main computer is struck by lightning. Locked in for the evening, the couples have no choice but to stand and fight, hoping beyond hope that they can survive until the mall opens the next morning.

Right out of the gate, I was feeling good about Chopping Mall. The opening credits sequence, which featured (among other things) mall patrons playing arcade games and eating at the food court, reminded me of my teenage years, when my friends and I would spend our weekends hanging out at the mall (which, incidentally, is exactly where you would have found us in 1986). I also enjoyed the film’s various cameos; aside from Dick Miller’s brief appearance as a foul-tempered janitor, the presence of Dick Bartel and Mary Woronov reminded me it’s been way too long since I’ve seen Eating Raoul. In addition, the central characters in Chopping Mall are something more than your standard movie teens. Along with Kelli Maroney’s Allison and Tony O’Dell’s Ferdy, who were essentially the leads, I liked the young married couple, Rick and Linda, mostly because ‘80s films of this ilk rarely featured a husband and wife who truly care about one another. Tossing these two characters into the mix with the usual collection of horny teens was a refreshing change of pace.

So why didn’t I fall in love with Chopping Mall? The problem was the killer robots; in a nutshell, I didn’t find them the least bit scary. In fact, they looked like Johnny 5, the heroic droid from Short Circuit, only with a lot less personality. Even by ‘80s standards, these robots were far too clunky to be state-of-the-art security devices, let alone out-of-control killers, and despite the damage they do (In what is easily the film’s best special effects sequence, one character’s head explodes into a hundred pieces), I felt no tension whatsoever when they rolled onto the scene.

Chopping Mall will undoubtedly appeal to fans of ‘80s cheese. All others should probably steer clear of it.

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 his role from the stage production) has ruled England for almost 30 years. Though a loving husband to his Queen, Charlotte (Helen Mirren), the mother of his 15 children, George’s relationship with his eldest son and heir apparent, the Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett) is contentious at best. A ruler who’s never been 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 present 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, in the hope that 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 dramatically 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 while 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 ineffective healthcare was 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, which would all but guarantee that he would be made 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, such as 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 will also open your eyes to a few political truths that are every bit as relevant today as they were in the 18th century.

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 cinematic party. 

As you’re watching this 1981 film, you get the distinct feeling that everyone had a great time making it, 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). 

Taking this high level of frivolity into account, I’m betting a good many people will find The Cannonball Run a tedious experience, but as someone who watched it dozens of times on cable TV in the '80s, I admit to being a fan. 

Yes, The Cannonball Run feels like a private party for its cast, but at least the audience was invited, too.

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 pulled over by the cops. 

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 a few dozen recognizable personalities. Burt Reynolds stars as JJ McClure, who, along with his mechanic Victor (Dom DeLuise), is driving what he thinks is a vehicle no cop will dare mess with: an ambulance! They’ve managed to secure a physician for the trip, the alcoholic proctologist Dr. Van Helsing (Jack Elam), and JJ even kidnaps the sexy 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 is trying to shut the race down. 

As if the kidnapping charge hanging over his head wasn’t enough, JJ also has to contend with Victor’s “alter ego”, an obnoxious superhero named Captain Chaos whose personality often takes control of Victor’s body without a moment’s notice.

Racing against JJ and Victor are a pair of gamblers in a red Ferrari posing 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 Middle-Eastern Sheik (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 associate 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, with much of the humor stemming from the contestants tossing insults at one another (Sammy Davis Jr. is called “shorty” more than once) and bragging they’ll be the first to reach California. 

Even more routine is the fact that 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 Cannonball Run 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 that director 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 (I assume) 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 good), 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 hurt himself 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 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) turns up, begging 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 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 were 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 play “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 enjoy 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 is given way too much scree time). And while the above-mentioned moment of gore is definitely a high point, the film’s effects, in general, 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 perform 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 of their solo efforts, 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 side of human nature in Heavy Traffic. Only this time around, he uses actual humans!

Twenty-something underground comic artist Michael Corleone (voiced by Joseph Kaufmann) still lives with his parents. His father Angelo (Frank DeKova), a minor figure in organized crime, fights day and night with his wife (and Michael's mother), the very Jewish 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 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 had  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 direct result of this encounter, Michael, who has 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.

With nowhere else to go, Michael and Carole try 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 son's romance with a black woman, puts a contract out on Michael's life, and the only person he can get to do the job is his son's romantic rival, Shorty!

An animated movie, Heavy Traffic does occasionally utilize 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. This gives the film a convincingly urban feel and provides the perfect setting for its story of prostitutes and criminals.

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, the film doesn’t shy away from more serious subject matters 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 hate crimes head-on, Heavy Traffic takes a long, hard look at life on the seedy side of town, and in doing so somehow manages to give 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 more on a 1902 stage play than it is 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 wise-asses, 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 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 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. In addition, Andy is suffering from writer's block, and as if to rub salt in his wounds, Katherine, who previously worked as a school teacher, pens a children’s book in her spare time, one so good that 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. On top of that, 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 obligated 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 what “lamb fries” really are). The film’s finale, 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 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 (which, for the record, are shown over an image of a cooked rat sitting on a dinner plate), John Waters’ Desperate Living whisks 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 ever going to get! 

But if 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 has 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 attempt 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) and home to some of the worst scum imaginable. 

Soon after their arrival, Peggy and Grizelda meet Mole McHenry (Susan Lowe) and her lover Muffy St, Jacques (Liz Renay), who are nice enough to 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 through 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 at one point led semi-normal lives. During a flashback sequence, we learn that Muffy had a husband (Roland Hertz) and child. 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 the kid. 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 will finally be the man Muffy deserves. 

Most outrageous of all is Queen Carlotta, the insane monarch 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).

A movie filled to its 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 became the perfect fighting machines, 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 of 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 SPOILER ALERT: 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 in the night 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 has a tenuous relationship), Jesse turns to his new girlfriend Lisa (Kim Myers) and school chum Ron (Robert Rusler) for help. But to no avail; Freddy Krueger sdoes eventually 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 images and situations, using them 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 Freddy's reasons for changing 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.

Friday, November 14, 2014

#1,551. For the Birds (2000)

Directed By: Ralph Eggleston

Starring: Ralph Eggleston

Trivia: This movie was last to come from Pixar's Point Richmond studio before the company moved

My recent viewing of La Luna has given me a hankering to check out a few more Pixar shorts, and the one I was most anxious to revisit was 2000’s For the Birds, which played before the studio’s 2001 feature Monster’s, Inc.

The story is simple enough: a small blue bird lands on a telephone wire, but before it can get comfortable, another bird settles in right next to him. As the two bicker over which has the right to this coveted space, a third bird lands. And then another… and another. Before long, an entire flock is resting on the wire, each bird arguing (quite loudly) with its neighbor. It’s at this point a giant-sized bird, perched on the nearby pole, gets the others’ attention by waving at them. The birds on the wire mock the larger bird, who appears to be a simpleton, but when it flies over and takes its place between them, the larger bird’s extreme weight causes the telephone wire to bow, dipping it so low that it nearly touches the ground. As a result, the other birds, all bunched up next to him, make an effort to rid themselves of this troublesome fowl. They do eventually force their over-sized peer to let go of the wire, resulting in a calamity that none of them expected.

The brain child of Ralph Eggleston, For the Birds is absolutely hilarious, and so impressed Academy voters that, in 2002, they gave it the Oscar for Best Animated Short, marking the third time Pixar won the coveted award (after Tin Toy in 1988 and Geri’s Game in 1997). Colored with vibrant blues (both the sky and the birds themselves), For the Birds is a gorgeous bit of animation, but it’s the film’s very funny story that makes it so rewarding (the payoff scene, where the little birds get their comeuppance, is an absolute riot).

Watching this short in a darkened theater with a couple hundred other patrons back in 2001 was a fun experience, and put everyone in the perfect mood for Monsters, Inc. It usually takes a while for audiences to warm up to a comedy (whether animated or otherwise). Thanks to For the Birds, that entire theater was in a laughing mood before the main feature even started.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

#1,550. 'G' Men (1935)

Directed By: William Keighley

Starring: James Cagney, Margaret Lindsay, Ann Dvorak

Tag line: "Hollywood's Most Famous Bad Man Joins the "G-MEN" and Halts the March of Crime!"

Trivia: An opening scene was added in 1948, 13 years after the film was made, depicting new FBI recruits about to view this film

Accused by some groups of glorifying criminals in movies like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, Warner Brothers decided to mix things up in the mid '30s by focusing not on the crooks, but the authorities assigned to take them down. Directed by William Keighley, 1935’s 'G' Men was one of the first in this new string of crime films. It also happens to be one of the best.

With his law practice floundering, defense attorney Brick Davis (James Cagney) takes the advice of his old pal Eddie Buchanan (Regis Toomey), a “G”-Man who was recently killed in the line of duty, and becomes a Federal Agent. Saying goodbye to his sponsor, racketeer and gang leader ‘Mac' McKay (William Harrigan), as well as former girlfriend Jean (Ann Dvorak), Brick leaves New York behind and heads to Washington to begin his training. His first day there, he butts heads with Jeff McCord (Robert Armstrong), the agent assigned to show him the ropes, and also gets off on the wrong foot with McCord’s sister Kay (Margaret Lindsey), who Brick takes an instant liking to. Anxious to get to work, Brick helps the Agency in their battle against Brad Collins (Barton MacLane), the notorious criminal who’s now in charge of the gang that once belonged to McKay. But as Brick and his fellow ‘G’ Men soon discover, Collins is an adversary every bit as dangerous as his reputation suggests.

Though he plays a character much different than The Public Enemys Tom Powers, James Cagney is just as tough as he was in that earlier picture; the first time we meet Brick, he angrily refuses to take a case in which he’d have to defend a guy who beat up his own mother. There are even moments in 'G' Men when the actor gets to show off his comedic skills. During his training, Brick manages to rough up a surprised McCord, and at one point is tossed around like a rag doll by Hugh Farrell (Lloyd Nolan), an agent demonstrating the finer points of physically restraining a criminal. Its brief moments of levity aside, 'G' Men is an electrifying motion picture, with an entire third act that’s non-stop thrills (one particular scene, a shoot-out between the Feds and Collins’ men, is more intense than I would have ever anticipated).

Made at a time when the Production Code was in full force, 'G' Men may, at first, seem like a picture full of compromises (as mentioned above, its focusing on the cops instead of the crooks marked a major turning point in the American crime film), but the movie itself is just as exciting, and equally as violent, as any of its predecessors.