Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pretty Goodfellas: "Wise Guys" (1986)

Brian De Palma is not the first director you would think of to helm a slapstick-laden comedy about the mob, but he gives George Gallo's first produced screenplay a try, and succeeds for the most part.

Best friends Harry (Danny DeVito) and Moe (Joe Piscopo) are two low level Mafia operatives working for Tony Castelo (Dan Hedaya). How low level are they? They run around Newark taking care of his grocery lists and dry cleaning, and Castelo's other henchmen take bets on whether they will survive starting the Don's luxury car. The duo is entrusted to place a twenty-five thousand dollar bet at a horse track, but decide to put it on another horse and lose, costing Castelo a quarter of a million dollar windfall. Castelo decides to teach them a lesson, and takes out a contract on the men- but with Moe hired to kill Harry, and Harry hired to kill Moe. Normally, the laughs would start there, but Gallo throws in a trip to Atlantic City and a few scenes with Bobby (Harvey Keitel), one of Harry and Moe's friends from the past. Harry works hard trying to come up with the money to get things right with Castelo, and Bobby sees an opportunity as well.

De Palma's direction has always been a little intense, so his take on the comedy genre is interesting. The humor can be dark, and De Palma handles it well. Ira Newborn's musical score is awesome (when not drifting into 1980's synthesizer territory), and the grimy New Jersey locale works. Gallo does telegraph a lot of jokes (I could see the punchline in the men's room scene from a mile away), and he doesn't seem to trust his original plot enough to stick with two dumb guys trying to kill each other.

The funniest performance comes from the unlikeliest actor. Captain Lou Albano was best known for his professional wrestling appearances, and roles in Cyndi Lauper music videos. Here, he is unrecognizable as the Fixer, a foul-mouthed killer, and he should have scored an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor. The screen lights up every time he is on, and he had me laughing. DeVito does try to get the film going, since Piscopo can't rely on the "Saturday Night Live" impressions that made him famous. He mostly squeals after DeVito, and gets lost in the cinematic shuffle. Ray Sharkey is given a thankless role as a bartender, his scene in the church goes on way too long.

I remember this came and went back in the day, and I never got the chance to watch "Wise Guys" until I found it in a thrift store on VHS. It's not a perfect comedy, but it does the job. (* * * *) out of five stars.

They Put the 'Con' in 'Unicon': "Bugs Bunny: 4 Favorite Cartoon Classics"

Ah, the public domain extended play-recorded videotape. The catch in the craw of many a movie lover and VHS and DVD collector. I found this thing from a company called Unicon at a thrift store for a whopping twenty cents; it features four pieces of classic animation in one crappy looking collection:

"The Wabbit Who Came to Supper" (1942) Directed by Friz Freleng, Written by Michael Maltese
An early Bugs Bunny cartoon features the fatter version of Elmer Fudd discovering he is set to inherit three million dollars if he is nice to all animals, including rabbits. This is wonderful stuff, a cartoon I have seen a hundred times, and it never gets old. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

"Prest-O Change-O" (1939) Directed by Chuck Jones, Written by Rich Hogan
Two dogs hide from a dog catcher in a house haunted by a magician's rabbit- who was apparently an early prototype for Bugs Bunny. This isn't bad animation, but repetition sets in, and while the white rabbit onscreen may have been an inspiration for Bugs, it still isn't Bugs! (* * *) out of five stars.

"Have You Got Any Castles?" (1938) Directed by Frank Tashlin, Written by Jack Miller
This is another one of those short cartoons where characters from books come alive in a dark library and mix. It's all big fun, especially if you can pick out the in-jokes when it comes to the tomes' film adaptations, although I get the feeling the Cab Calloway-inspired segment might be a bit racist? (* * * *) out of five stars.

"Poor Cinderella" (1934) Directed by Dave Fleischer
Betty Boop shows up on this collection, probably because most of the character's appearances are in the public domain, as well. Billed as Boop's first color cartoon, the version on this video is either so washed out, or was recorded from black and white, that Betty's hair comes off as gray. The quality stinks, I would love to see this restored, or at least in color. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Quality is the problem with most of these public domain tapes, and it is a huge setback here. Anonymous companies churned out these EP recorded things at reduced prices, using whatever copy of the work they had available. While some of these tapes are the only way to see some of these films, the picture is awful and I can't imagine spending too much for "Bugs Bunny: 4 Favorite Cartoon Classics." The average star rating of the films is about a four, but for the overall product, I am going with (* * *) out of five stars.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Jurassic Pork: "Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend" (1985)

A film meant for kids, but featuring nudity, sex, and violence (all to a bouncy Jerry Goldsmith musical score), "Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend" is a bizarre cinematic misfire.

George (William Katt) is a sports writer accompanying his anthropologist wife Susan (Sean Young) to deepest Africa. She is investigating a local legend that dinosaurs are still living in the jungle, and goes about her studies under the watchful eye of mentor Eric (Patrick MacGoohan, sporting an evil hat and equally evil beard as if he was auditioning for a 007 bad guy role). We have already seen Eric stab a colleague to death to get his hands on some dino-papers, so it appears the Imperialist whites are on the right track.

Susan checks on a poisoned tribe, and she and her ready-to-leave husband stumble on a family of brontosauruses. Eric and his sniveling assistant Nigel (Julian Fellowes) and their band of brutish African soldiers murder the father dino and drug the mother dino up, ready to take her back for study. They don't notice the Baby bronto, but Susan and George do, adopting it like it's a giant puppy while deciding their next move.

Marketed as a fun adventure for the whole family, the film was rated PG by the MPAA. Once the kiddies were planted in their seats, popcorn in hand, they are treated to the adventures of a temporarily orphaned dinosaur. They are also treated to a stabbing in the opening scenes, bare breasted African women, William Katt in wet clingy underwear, a guy getting shot in the neck by an arrow, George and Susan having a little jungle lovin', birds pecking at the bloody carcass of an animal, Sean Young's unclasped bra, battle scenes that look lifted from "The Dogs of War," an electrocution, dying tribal chiefs, angry dino moms chewing on a villain, and one guy getting kicked out of a helicopter to his death. Sure, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was also PG, but that was a throwback to a bygone cinematic era complemented with modern film making techniques. Here, the animatronic dinosaurs are interesting only if you stumbled on them during a less popular ride at a theme park. As film special effects, they are not very good. I spotted black string lifting the heads of the creatures on many occasions (and I watched this on a VHS videotape player and a tube TV!). The miniature effects work better but not by much.

I was a jaded teenager when this came out, and thankfully didn't have to take my younger siblings to it. Now, as a jaded adult, I only scoffed and scratched my bald head in wonder at what I was watching. What I do know is that I wasn't watching a very good film. "Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend" certainly lost me. (* *) out of five stars.