Shock Treatment (1981)

Shock Treatment (1981) movie poster

director  Jim Sharman
viewed: 06/07/2017

Movies are hard to make. It takes a lot of talents: writing, acting, cinematography, editing, directing, music. There is also the notion that comedy is hard, and by comparison death is easy. Add into that musical numbers, songs that have to take the front stage center of a film. I would suggest that musicals would be the most difficult genre to succeed in.

Add onto all of this, making a follow up to a cult hit, the midnight movie to rule over all midnight movies, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. What Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien took on was massively unlikely to be a success. And surprise. It wasn’t.

But the annals of cult film are wide and broad, deep and tall, and even a failed cult film can become a cult film success in a minor way too.

Bringing back a lot of elements of Rocky Horror (though leaving out the most popular stars and some of its key elements regarding sexuality), Shock Treatment is a strange comic musical with a lot of similar-sounding rock-n-roll pop tunes and characters named Brad and Janet.

Frankly, I don’t think it’s really half-bad. It does get a bit tedious but it’s also quite fun. Watching Rocky Horror outside of a midnight movie house loses a lot of its charms as well.

Actually, it’s cool to see Jessica Harper again. She made quite a few appearances in cult musicals in her day.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999) movie poster

director Trey Parker
viewed: 05/13/2017

Saturday night, combing through my queue at Amazon Prime, the kids spot South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut and respond “A South Park movie? Is that a real thing?” We’ve spent part of the past 6 months working our way through the series from the beginning and we’re almost caught up with the present. At 13 and 15, I think they’re mature enough to appreciate and consider South Park.

It’s actually been an interesting thing, time traveling through the show, which at best is wickedly funny, spot-on, and clever and interesting. At its weakest, it’s rather tone-deaf on gender issue and transsexuality, climate science, and a couple other things. Still, valuable as starting talking points.

The movie is, like the show, at its best, quite hilarious. The “Uncle Fucka” song and Cartman’s V-chip in his skull are classic ideas from Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and company, and very funny. Taking on the issue of swearing seems very appropriate for a show of foul-mouthed kids suddenly unleashed on an R-rated platform, and that they get their cursing from a movie they like, apropos.

But the satan/Saddam Hussein thing, and the whole apocalypse brought about by killing Terrance and Phillip is a bloated, and a lot less funny. Really, the movie could easily be pared down into on totally great episode of the show, and maybe should have been.

Who knows? Just my opinion.

The Apple (1980)

The Apple (1980) movie poster

director  Menahem Golan
viewed: 07/05/2016

The Apple is bananas.

It’s one of those you’ve either seen it or you haven’t kind of movies, and for the most part, I’d say that if you haven’t then you should because…well, it’s bananas.

Directed by Menahem Golan, The Apple is a science fiction musical set in the future of 1994, where music is managed by corporate figures who are literal devils in disguise.  It’s a musical parable with an amazing amount of conviction and a near lethal amount of tackiness and cheese.  Watching it is like mainlining camp.

I’d like to imagine an alternative universe where The Apple is not just a cult classic hit like Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) but more like a total mainstream classic like The Sound of Music (1965).  That would be an alternative reality with some major weird and lots of fun.

Can’t even begin to imagine how much cocaine was on set.

Stormy Weather (1943)

Stormy Weather (1943) movie poster

director Andrew L. Stone
viewed: 04/02/2016

Stormy Weather is a tremendous artifact of a film.  It stars Lena Horne and Bill Robinson in a musical/comedy showcase for an almost entirely black cast, including such luminaries as Fats Waller and Cab Calloway (and his band) is jam-packed with musical and dance numbers, 20 or so in the film’s brief 78 minutes.

It’s not without its racial stereotypes and problematic elements, but it is remarkable to see so many black faces in a film from 1943, to see these all-star talents showcase their stuff on film, captured for all time and perpetuity, all within a context of a story that gives more respect and agency to the roles than most any other Hollywood film of the time period.  It’s been suggested that the characters are largely sexless and unthreatening, “safe” images of blacks that were crafted for white audiences by white producers.  And while that is doubtlessly true, representation of black artists and culture, existing on on the silver screen, headlining the film and the poster, is something in and of itself.

In 1943, Calloway was heading toward the end of his heyday, Waller the all too early end of his life, Robinson was in his sixties.  The title song was a decade old.  Back then pop culture had a longer shelf-life than it does today, but these were doubtlessly tried and true elements, big established names and songs packaged in a film that couldn’t be marketed in the South.  It was also a bit of the going pro-military WWII propaganda, promoting support of the troops and service.  In some ways, it’s also a bit of a career retrospective of Robinson’s, though probably more in theory than truth.

Of all the performances, the most outstanding is the dancing of the Nicholas brothers.  Their number is absolutely amazing, vibrant, and awesome.  I’ve long loved Cab Calloway and Fats Waller, and it’s tremendously cool to see them in action (Waller actually died at 39 just months after filming).

Stormy Weather is often paired with Cabin in the Sky (also 1943) which featured Horne in a much smaller role but also with an almost entirely African-American cast and stars such as Ethel Waters and Louis Armstrong.  I’m not sure which of the films I preferred, but they are both remarkable historical documents containing some wonderful performances and entertainment, very much creations of the time, and yet cultural outliers as well.

42nd Street (1933)

42nd Street (1933) movie poster

directors Lloyd Bacon, Busby Berkeley
viewed: 02/29/2016

Not quite as good or poignant as Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) (which was already in production when this film hit the theaters), 42nd Street is absolutely cut from the same cloth.  It’s a “backstage musical”, directed by Lloyd Bacon instead of Mervyn LeRoy (who had to step out due to illness), featuring Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee, and Ginger Rogers, great numbers composed by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, and the psychedelic choreography of the unmatched Busby Berkeley.

Featuring great tunes like “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me”, “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” and the titular “42nd Street” make for good times.  Warner Baxter is almost archetypal as Julian Marsh, the hard-driving show director.  I loved Una Merkel as the goofy showgirl Loraine Fleming.

Overall, though, the story isn’t as tight, the jokes aren’t quite as sparkling, nor is the social commentary quite as piquant as  Gold Diggers, but then again, Gold Diggers of 1933 might just be the best of the best so anything might seem a little less in comparison.

Those Busby Berkeley numbers, though!  Man, oh, man!  Glitzy surrealism, live action sculpture, painting with legs and limbs.  The camera movement is so weird and radical.  The sequences aren’t as frequent as in Gold Diggers but the “42nd Street” finale is fantastic, absolutely amazing.  I can’t wait to watch more.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) movie poster

directors  Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley
viewed: 02/04/2016

What a hoot!!

Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle has referred to Gold Diggers of 1933 as one of the best movies of the Depression, and Boy Howdy if I wouldn’t agree!

The pre-code comedy features Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, and Ruby Keeler as three showgirl roommates barely scraping by when Warren William shows up with a great idea for a show: a show about the Depression, what it’s really like.  And when he hears the music of Dick Powell, an aspiring songwriter neighbor of the gals, and then Powell turns out to have the money to foot the show, well, we’ve got us a musical!

Blondell and MacMahon are hilarious, leading Powell’s blue blood brother and his partner around by the nose and then eventually the heartstrings while they try to mash out the show.  You know, showgirls have a reputation….

The comedy is fast and funny as hell, but then you’ve got the phantasmagorical musical numbers staged, choreographed, and directed by legendary Busby Berkeley.  Have you ever wondered why Busby Berkeley is a legend?  Just watch Gold Diggers of 1933 and you’ll have no more questions.

From the opening number “We’re in the Money”, performed by Ginger Rogers, to the finale “Remember My Forgotten Man” (all songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin), these utterly cinematic dance and performance numbers stunning, vivid, surreal, fantastical.  Words don’t do it justice.  Just see it.

All of this, comic and music and fantasy escapism, yet all set solidly in the world of the Depression, a direct reflection of the outside reality of the time.

This is a movie I could watch again and again.  And I plan to.

West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story (1961) movie poster

directors Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins
viewed: 09/06/2015

Of all the movies I’ve been catching as I work my way through the odd films that I hadn’t seen from the BBC’s 100 Greatest American MoviesWest Side Story is doubtlessly the most ubiquitous, famous, most-glaring omission from my film-watching history.  What can I say?  What I’ve always said: Nobody has seen everything.  But how could you have missed this?  Dunno.  It happened.

Until now.  Finally.

Fantastic movie.  Beautifully shot.  Gorgeous.  Great songs.  Classic.

It’s so weird, how familiar almost every song is.  This is one of those musicals that has been inflected and reflected through pop culture so much, such an array of images, that seeing it even for the first time, it’s still amazingly familiar.  But of course, I hadn’t seen it and I guess I was surprised how much I liked it.

I watched it with Clara.  She enjoyed it.  One of the music teachers at the kids’ school apparently has this as an all-time favorite movie, a go-to for the substitutes, and so Felix had seen it a few times already and Clara was familiar with the music too, even at 11 years old, the ubiquity of West Side Story is profound still.

One of the best American movie musicals?  I won’t argue.

The Band Wagon (1953)

The Band Wagon (1953) movie poster

director Vincente Minnelli
viewed: 08/16/2015

Check off another of the BBC’s 100 Greatest American Movies that I had not yet seen.  Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon is considered alongside Singin’ in the Rain (1952) as among the best of American musicals.  For my money…I guess I don’t totally know where I stand on it.  I did like it and quite well.

Some years back, a friend turned me on to Fred Astaire and I came to really like his films, particularly ones from the 1930’s.  I’m no expert on musicals but this seems a somewhat odd one.

What starts with Tony Hunter (Astaire), a movie star on the wane, returning to New York and Broadway at the behest of a musical/dance writing husband and wife combo, Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray, turns into a shanghaied fiasco.   They bring on touted producer/actor Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) and he brings on ballet star Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse).  Gabrielle and Tony take an immediate dislike to one another and Cordova turns a light “song and dance” show into an over the top version of “Faust”.

The final section of the film moves from a more standard narrative into a collage of sequences: a hay ride, a top hat and cane pairing, a trio dressed as triplets, and finally into the film’s most inspired piece, the “Girl Hunt Ballet”, a loose, humorous musical dance twist on Noir.  While this latter segment has the feel of a variety show, it sort of veers from the track of a general narrative.

It’s odd.  Good, perhaps great, but odd.  And that’s all I got after one viewing.

Rock, Rock, Rock (1956)

Rock, Rock, Rock (1956) movie poster

director Will Price
viewed: 07/03/2015

Rock, Rock, Rock is a figment utterly of its time, a rock’n’roll movie at the birth period of the form, featuring lip-synched performances by the likes of Chuck Berry, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, the Moonglows, Lavern Baker, the Johnny Burnette Trio, and Alan Freed, all wrapped in an odd little story about a girl who wants to get a new dress and delves briefly into extortion to get it.  That girl is played by a very young Tuesday Weld.

Sitting in the public domain, this film is a remnant of a time, a capsule of its own, oddly very seemingly low-budget.