Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Forgotten Movies, New Year's Eve edition: Allan Arkush's GET CRAZY!

Back on Memorial Day weekend of 2002, I attended a screening of GET CRAZY that was part of a Malcolm McDowell retrospective at Lincoln Center. McDowell was there for several films in the series, and pretty much the only reason he stuck around for GET CRAZY was because it screened right after A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which was understandably a much hotter ticket (couldn’t score one myself, sadly). McDowell’s intro was refreshingly honest – he didn’t remember much about the movie, as he’d only seen it once at the cast & crew screening back in 1983 - but he was looking forward to seeing it again. I hadn’t seen it in a long time myself, not since its cable TV days, but my memories of it were good ones, and I’d long loved director Allan Arkush’s ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, so I was quite enthused to see it again. However, seeing it with a crowd of Walter Reade Theater regulars and Kubrick devotees who were only staying for another Malcolm McDowell film, the film just died; though a few laughs did seep in, I was assuming that my memories of the film made it something more than the film I was seeing. McDowell was almost apologetic afterwords, explaining that he needed some work on his house at the time and that, along with the fun of playing a rock star and getting to do a comedy (which he said he did enjoy) was why he did it. He didn’t seem to enjoy the film much and wondered why they played it (the programmer explained she felt it was a great McDowell performance, which is true), but McDowell flippantly said, “Well, I’m sure it must have some fans”, to which a young man in the audience raised his hand and explained that GET CRAZY was his favorite movie and that he drove all the way from Connecticut to be there. Not that this shut anyone up, but it sure as hell proved that GET CRAZY was sure as hell not a movie for the Lincoln Center crowd.

Moving forward to February 2009, they screened GET CRAZY at the Alamo Drafthouse as part of the Music Mondays series, and I almost wasn’t going to go, in part because of my memories of that screening and also because I’d been having a shitty day. But I’m glad I did. It played a lot better than it did back in 2002, and the audience (and the context of the screening) had most everything to do with it. To go from one audience who couldn’t get into the film to one who openly embraced it made a huge difference, and I’m happy to say that I’m a fan of GET CRAZY once again. It’s not that the Alamo crowd was easy to please and predisposed to like any early 80s comedy (and trust me when I say that it sometimes is the case), but that they went in either as fans of GET CRAZY or were ready to love it because they get where it’s coming from. As it was a Music Mondays show, they were ready to rock, ready to laugh, and knew a little something about what Arkush and his collaborators were poking fun at (and playing tribute to). Based on Arkush’s years at the famed Fillmore East (and, in a very nice touch, dedicated to his fellow staffers) GET CRAZY is certainly an exaggerated account of those experiences (updated to then-modern late 1982), but it gets right its love and respect for the world of rock ‘n’ roll music, at least when it’s all about the music and not the money or the egos. Yes, it pokes a lot of fun at various types in the scene – punk rockers, new wavers, bluesmen, hippies, megastars, tortured artists, the fans – but it’s also an unquestionably affectionate spoof of the scene. As long as you love the music and don’t concern yourself with money, then you’re OK in GET CRAZY’s book.

What I particularly like about GET CRAZY is that Arkush takes the same controlled madness approach that he also applied to ROCK ‘N’ ROOL HIGH SCHOOL; the film flies off onto wild little tangents from time to time that have nothing to do with the plotline, but always finds its way back without any issue. This not only allows Arkush and co-writers Danny Opatoshu, Henry Rosenbaum and David Taylor to come up with lots of crazy ideas (this is one movie that really lives up to its title), but to also give the excellent supporting cast moments to shine. Best of these finds none other than Lou Reed playing a reclusive, Dylan-esque rock star who agrees to play the film’s New Year’s Eve rock show, but spends most of the night in the back of a cab looking for inspiration. Whoever had the great idea to cast Reed (or whoever turned the role down before he said yes) deserves big thanks, because Reed almost walks away with the show, displaying unfathomed dry comic skill and energy (even the first cutaway to him is hilarious). Everyone gets a moment to shine, especially McDowell (as the film’s Jagger stand-in, Reggie Wanker), Lee Ving, John Densome of The Doors (unexpectedly animated as McDowell's drummer), Lori Eastside as new wave star Nada (she gets the film’s best line) and Bill Henderson as King Blues, who does a great rendition of “The Blues Got Soul”. They’re all great, but this truly is Arkush’s show. He never really had it this good again (he’s specialized mainly in TV since, winning an Emmy for directing THE TEMPTATIONS), but with this and ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL he’s proven himself a master of the rock ‘n’ roll comedy, one of the few directors anywhere who really knows how to artfully combine the two (you’re damn right I used the word “artfully”, and I’ll do it again in a second). I think it’s probably more a matter of Arkush being someone who loves rock ‘n’ roll who also knows comedy, but no matter what he’s made two of the best rock movies ever. Perhaps he’s peaked early, like too many rock ‘n’ rollers, but he left us with two great ones, and his place his history is assured because of this. Rock ‘n’ roll and movies; this is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Monday, December 21, 2009

People I Know Make Stuff

When I say "make stuff", I'm talking about taking the time out to really make something, to bust your ass for months on a passion project that you're not going to profit on, just something that you know you want that you can only get by putting the pedal to the metal and making it your own damn self. Pal Kayla Kromer had a such a passion this time last year when she decided that she wanted a hamburger bed, which then went on to become an internet sensation that even turned me into an online superstar for a bit. Kayla sold the bed over the summer and quickly went to work on her latest passion project and the results are even more impressive. My inner 10 year-old is pretty damn jealous that Kayla has made her own Millennium Falcon bed, and having seen the damn thing in person I had no idea how much I wanted one until it was standing there in front of me. Aside from being a damn comfortable bed, it looks great, has working lights and a compartment for a keyboard and mouse pad (Kayla works on her bed; she teaches first grade) and even a cockpit for Han and Chewie to zip around the galaxy in. Like its predecessor, the Millennium Falcon bed has become a big internet hit, showing up on the home page for STAR and no doubt earning Kayla thousands, if not millions, of online marriage proposals. Kayla's craft making abilities have earned her some much-deserved fame, but it's her desire to make something on her own and her talent at putting it together that truly makes her awesome. Great job, Kayla!

(photo by Heather Leah Kennedy)

I first met Richard Gale at the 2007 Fantasia Film Festival when his short film CRITICIZED screened to a pretty rapturous audience reaction (it won one of the audience awards). He met up again when the film screened at Fantastic Fest and again at a NYC genre film fest that fall and we just hit it off like the right people do. Richard's experience on the festival circuit was so much fun that he decided to make another short with the idea for getting it ready for Fantastic Fest 2008. Coming in just under the wire (I had no idea the short was playing until I saw Richard at the fest), it turned out to be one of the fest's biggest hits and won a special award, the first of what has become a long series of festival awards for THE HORRIBLY SLOW MURDERER WITH THE EXTREMELY INEFFICIENT WEAPON. The list of audience awards for this puppy is pretty non-stop (seven thus far), but the real exciting part is what happened once Richard finally uploaded it onto YouTube this past Halloween. Not only is THSMWTEIW one of the highest-rated shorts in YouTube's relatively short history, it's now approaching nearly two million hits, which is puts this at "Lazy Sunday" level in terms of internet popularity. And I pleased to say it deserves the success, not just because Richard is such a good guy, but also because he made a very entertaining short that takes an admittedly one-joke premise and sustains laughs for ten minutes straight. It's a pretty fast-moving piece and it shows Richard off to great effect (usually the point of most hsort films), so it pleases me to hear about its success. It's down below for those of you who haven't seen it yet.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Forgotten Movies: Cy Endfield's HELL DRIVERS

If you want to define the quintessential British movie tough guy, then look no further than Stanley Baker. Over the course of a full, yet too-brief career (Baker died of a lung cancer at 48) he defined postwar British action and tough guy roles in such films as CRIMINAL, ZULU (which he also produced), HELL IS A CITY, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and ROBBERY, among just a few of his hits. As much of a respected dramatic actor as he was a popular movie star (he played Henry Tudor in Olivier’s RICHARD III and made several acclaimed film with Joseph Losey, including ACCIDENT, written by Harold Pinter), Baker often found himself playing a tough guy with heart - like Cagney, Bogart, or Marvin - types are those who are rough around the edges, but good souls who truly want to be left in peace. But like most tough guys, they find themselves in situations where been pushed too far and have to fight back, and they sure as hell know how to fight when the situation demands it. This, in a nutshell, is Baker’s role in Cy Enfield’s HELL DRIVERS, a guy who finds himself in a situation where it’s a fight for survival, even though it’s the last thing he wants. Of course, none of this is nothing new or really original – even back in 1959, when the film was made – but there’s a fine British grit to HELL DRIVERS that makes it feel just right, and even though it doesn’t hold much in the way of surprises, it’s a solid piece of entertainment that still works, 50 years later.

When I made the Bogart/Cagney comparison to Stanley Baker, it’s not just because he’s in their league, but also because HELL DRIVERS is the kind of picture that Warner Brothers could have made back in their crime drama/social outrage drama heyday of the 1930s. It also takes a page from the likes of Jules Dassin’s THEIVES HIGHWAY to discuss the seedy world of trucking and the exploitation of the drivers – always overworked, always struggling to fill their quota, always in fierce competition with each other – while remaining a tough guy movie all-around. Baker’s character is just out of prison, looking for work, and is sent to a small trucking company (hauling gravel) out in the countryside. He’s without a license, so if he’s caught he’s doubly screwed, and as the new guy he instantly butts heads with most of the other drivers, especially top hauler Patrick McGoohan, who’s also a bit of a psycho. So yeah, the script to HELL DRIVERS was already nothing new back in ’59, and I’m not saying that it’s anything all that special. But presentation is indeed everything in this case, and HELL DRIVERS is certainly a fine example of taking familiar material and making something tasty (if not fresh) out of it.

A large part of this is in the casting, not just with Stanley Baker, although he definitely makes for the right lead needed in a picture like this, but also with a supporting cast that seems like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’ve already mentioned McGoohan (perfectly scummy), but you’ve also got a young Sean Connery, CARRY ON’s Sidney Havers, Herbert Lom as an Italian who’s Baker’s sole friend and confidant (needless to say, he’s toast), and a young David McCallum as Baker’s brother. Thanks to this cast, HELL DRIVERS is a movie with some personality and they all make it very easy to watch even when you know what’s coming. Enfield (who would later direct ZULU), generally a muscular director to begin with, also infuses it with some tight pacing and always keeps it moving (there’s a lot going on within each frame), so it’s easy to get caught up in it all. But at the center of it all is Baker, easy to like and root for, who is the key to HELL DRIVERS’ success. He makes otherwise tired material fresh simply by showing up and caring enough to do a good job, and it’s no surprise this was one of his biggest hits. It gives the British tough guy movie a good name.