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Wild Style, and six more movies

Graffiti and hip-hop, a time travel car chase, a strange but enjoyable Frankenstein update, Fred Williamson and Roger Moore in two different gangster movies, and documentaries about a deadly amusement park and an avant-garde impresario.

• As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)
• Black Caesar (1973)
• Class Action Park (2020)
• Mr Stitch (1995)
• Street People (1976)
• The Time Guardian (1987)
• Wild Style (1982)

The Neverending
Film Festival

#96

Best of show has to be Wild Style. It's kinda clumsy moviemaking, but it knows who the good guys are, and it feels real, in ways most movies never even try to be.

Mr Stitch is first runner-up, a clever and innovative sci-fi.

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As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000)

Google tells me — the movie sure didn't — that Jonas Mekas was a celebrated avant-garde filmmaker. This is his only movie that I've (sorta) seen, and it bored the bejeebers out of me. 

It's autobiographical, with Mekas rooting through his archives and home movies and whatnot, to piece together his life story. Being a moviemaker, he had plenty of footage to choose from, and the result is a long, self-indulgent, dare I say avant-garde documentary with occasional voiceovers and intertitles, sometimes with very very bad singing, but more often only tinkling piano music.

I watched about an hour of it, in pieces over three nights, as a reliable bedtime lullaby. As the title promises, there are brief glimpses of beauty, but more often it's badly lit, out of focus, filmed with a shaky camera, and run at the wrong speed.

As narrator, Mekas says the same things different ways, which kinda reminds me of my own writing, but at least I try to edit my repetitiveness down to a minimum. Mekas makes no effort, as he admits early in the film:

"When I began now to put all these rolls of film together, to string them together, the first idea was to keep them chronological, but then I gave up, and I just began splicing them together by chance, the way that I found them on the shelf, because I do not know where any piece of my life really belongs, so let it be, let it go, just by pure chance, disorder, there is some kind of order in it, order of its own, which I do not really understand, same as I never understood life around me…"

Mekas seems like a nice enough chap, and he's smart, has interesting things to say, which he says again and again. As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty is of moderate interest for five or ten minutes at a time. 

It's raw footage, though, and it's tedious. Anyone who claims to have sat down and watched the entire four hours and 45 minutes of this is either Jonas Mekas, or a liar.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Black Caesar (1973)

Larry Cohen was a favorite moviemaker of mine, and here's his masterpiece of blaxploitation, in which Fred Williamson outsmarts everyone in the Mafia and on the street.

Cohen's frequent leading man Andrew Duggan appears in the first scene, so you might think he's the star, but he's only here long enough to get a shoeshine and get murdered before the opening credits.

The movie is stylish, with lots of bravado and macho and violence, which is always fun. But after the scene where Williamson rapes his wife because he's horny and she wasn't, it was difficult giving a damn about the movie's main character.

Written, produced, and directed by Cohen, of course. Music composed and performed by James fuckin' Brown. 

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Class Action Park (2020)

When I've gone to amusement parks, on scary rides I reassure myself that even if it seems dangerous, c'mon, it's been designed for safety, inspected for safety, and nobody's going to get hurt.

New Jersey's Action Park was different. It was a sprawling theme park where the theme was danger.

Owned by a rich idiot named Gene Mulvihill, it had rides designed by enthusiasts instead of engineers, so safety was an afterthought. Action Park largely sidestepped regulators and insurance requirements, because Mulvihill had big money and maybe mob connections.

Broken bones and near-drownings were daily occurrences, we're told, and at least six people died at the park in the 1980s — maybe more, but Mulvihill was good at keeping news out of the newspaper. One of the people the filmmakers talk to was the editor of the local paper, who was fired at Mulvihill's request.

When there were lawsuits, the park's attorneys were instructed to never settle, so suing was expensive, and plaintiffs usually lost. True to the American way, Mulvihill was never prosecuted and died rich and happy.

The movie's recurring theme, of course, is that Mulvihill was a rat bastard, and clearly that's true. Oddly, though, the movie's secondary point, almost as strenuously stressed, is that the 1980s were a different time, and latchkey kids didn't have much parental supervision. Maybe that's true, but so what? Tell me about a fatal amusement park, please, not better child-rearing philosophies.

At the end, the filmmakers come to a cemetery with a dead boy's parents, and cameras roll as his mom and dad lay flowers at his grave, and then the camera soars toward the clouds with a rising drone shot of the graveyard. Watching their grief become an exercise in cinematography felt intrusive, insensitive, and jarring.

Still, the movie has ample archival footage from Action Park, and it looks like the place was a blast, especially the most cheaply designed and dangerous rides. I'd love to go on the Alpine slide and into the tidal wave pool...

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Mr Stitch (1995)

The concept here is basically Frankenstein, with the twist that something's gone wrong in the wiring, so the creature has begun to remember the lives of the 88 people whose bodies were sewn together to make him.

Rutgar Hauer plays the mad scientist, and Will Wheaton plays the monster. Wheaton has such a slight build and soft voice, casting him as the monster seems unexpected, but he's quite good, and so's Hauer.

"All of my lives have come back to me now. It's so clear. It's not the dreams that haunt me; it's me that haunts the dreams."

The monster makeup for Wheaton is clever and equal opportunity, the sets are unsettling, the effects are minimal but effective, the direction and players are pretty good, and the dialogue and story are adequate and effective.

There's also a giant floating eyeball. More movies should have giant floating eyeballs.

Roger Avary wrote and directed Mr Stitch, between the making of Pulp Fiction and his winning the Oscar for writing it. It's neither Pulp Fiction nor Frankenstein, but it's an interesting work and I liked it.

It's been reported that Hauer was a horror on the set, constantly rewriting his dialogue and refusing to play scripted scenes. Such backstage stuff doesn't much interest me, but as released, the movie is a small-scale winner. It makes me wonder whether Hauer's off-screen antics ruined a would-be masterpiece, or rescued a would-be dud.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Street People (1976)

Maybe this'll be a documentary on early-era homelessness and lowlifeism, I thought, but instead the first words on screen are "American International." Anyone who likes 1970s B-movies knows that logo. Then, even better, the next screen says "Samuel Z Arkoff presents," and it's a guarantee of schlock with style.

Roger Moore plays a lawyer for some shady Mafia types, and we're supposed to believe that he's half-English, half-Sicilian. Stacy Keach is a race car driver who's a million-dollar hit man in his spare time.

The movie was filmed in San Francisco, but don't look for the ordinary Golden Gate Bridge and cable car shots, Instead the story frequents some scummier parts of the city, and made me a little homesick. 

Here's something I never understood from Mafia movies: "You've got 48 hours to come up with the money, or else," the thugs say, as they're beating the hell out of someone, kicking him in the nuts, bonking him on the brain, etc. He won't be able to round up the money, though, if he's in the hospital, so shouldn't the thugs hold back a little? A broken pinky instead of a fractured skull?

The movie ain't great but it also ain't bad. Gangland hits and politics, and Stacy Keach takes a Cadillac for a hell of a test drive. 

Verdict: MAYBE, depending on your appetite for B-movies.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Time Guardian (1987)

This is a very schlocky sci-fi flick that takes itself too seriously. Like The Terminator, some hellish future has sent a time traveler back to our time, only this time he's landed in Australia.

The plot is both too simplistic and overcomplicated. Dean Stockwell wears a ridiculous costume — big yellow circle on a blue jumpsuit — and he's in the movie just long enough to bark out a few military orders. Carrie Fisher, RIP, shows a little of her Star Wars take no shit attitude, but she's way in the background here.

Tom Burlinson stars, and it's all kinda fun but absolutely ordinary.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Wild Style (1982)

Directed, written, and produced by indy impresario Charlie Ahearn, Wild Style is said to be the first movie about hip-hop, which is music I usually hate. Surprisingly, though, this is an enjoyable film.

It follows a graffiti artist (Lee Quiñones) who calls himself Zorro, and sees walls and subway trains as his canvas. A pretty white lady tells Zorro he's an artist, and invites him and his crew to a snooty gallery party. "You should see his work," says Phade, a friend of Zorro's, talking to a white man who owns another gallery down the street.

"I've probably seen it," the putz answers. "We spent $50,000 last year removing graffiti from the side of our building." 

The movie's performers are likable, but let's be honest, they're very iffy as actors, and Wild Style often feels amateur. Quiñones actually is/was a graffiti artist, and the movies rappers are real rappers. The graffiti is beautiful, though, and the music sounds like a celebration instead of a threat.

Sometimes the rap is accompanied by accomplished dancing, and some of the numbers are as choreographed as the song and dance in an old-style musical. A funny number is staged on an asphalt basketball court, with the players rapping trash talk at each other, all with no mention of bitches and hos. There's even some breakdancing. 

Graffiti as art, and rap as fun? It's a memento from another era. Filmed on location outside NYC subway trains as they're artistically vandalized, it stars nobody I've never heard of, with special guest Grandmaster Flash. Lovely animated graffiti-style opening credits. The hip-hop here is catchy, and more than the story and performances, the mood of the movie is a smilingly flipped middle finger.

Even from quiet shots of the street, you can tell that the moviemakers love this neighborhood, this sound, and these characters, and it's infectious. 

After the closing credits, stick around for another ten minutes of outtakes, with optimistic rap music, and artwork on parade — subway cars rolling past, tagged and beautified.

Nowadays, the subway lots must be locked and patrolled at night, so most cars are un-graffitied, and that's a sadness. Unlock the lots, I say, and invite the taggers and artists to paint the trains again.

Verdict: YES.

10/24/2022   

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   

 

8 comments:

  1. The YouTube channel DefunctLand did a great short on Action Park about 5 years ago :

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flkW-ceNvck

    Also, in looking that up, I see that Class Action Park seems to be free on YT. Seems surprising.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That was better than the movie. Lacked a little of the movie's depth, but also lacked a lot of the movie's filler.

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    2. I don't particularly love amusement parks, but that channel does good stuff.

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    3. Most YouTube channels have a theme song on every episode like it's a TV show, and annoying "Click here to subscribe" and "Please send money" commercials. It's a small annoyance but Defunctland is not guilty.

      Delete
  2. As I may have told you, I grew up in NJ, so while I never went to Action Park, I saw the TV commercials regularly and it looked pretty crazy then. As someone who despite lessons still can't swim, I have no interest in water rides that feature jumping into a crowded lagoon, so I was saved by my own ineptitude. Otherwise, I'm certain that young me would've dived right in and ended up getting permanently mangled. We're talking about a young kid who hit his head on the edge of a desk in his own bedroom and ended up with lifelong deafness and tinnitus in his right ear, so imagine me going somewhere where the danger was greater than the edge of a desk. Anyhow, the stories I heard about that place were all confirmed in the doc and I found it hilariously narrated. Usually talking heads in docs miss the mark, but the folks speaking here captured a WTF?-bemusement that is very Jersey-like. For example, though I never set foot in the place, I can immediately place myself in a scene where everyone is rating dives, boobs, and hesitancy with a brutal 'fuck you' attitude the entire time. The kids I grew up around did not hold back their contempt for anyone who didn't eschew danger and jump enthusiastically into the fire. It's all idiocy now. And I'm ever so glad I'm old and indifferent to the feelings of morons, but when I was 11 or 12, I would've been looking up to these daredevils.--Arden.

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  3. Lifelong hearing loss, yikes. You must've hit that desk hard. Did you damage the desk?

    Closest I can come to that is that I once broke my pinky in an imaginary fist-sight with my boss. Home alone, punching the sofa, and my fist hit the wood behind the cushions.

    I'm probably too fat to go on any of the rides at an amusement park now, but joyously mostly immune to ridicule about it, or about anything.

    ReplyDelete
  4. no damage to the desk but two or three stitches to the back of my head.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do hope you're all better now. :)

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