Rupert Pupkin Speaks

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Underrated Action/Adventure - John D'Amico

John D'Amico is a New York City based filmmaker and theorist who
writes for SmugFilm.com and ShotContext.blogspot.com. On Twitter @jodamico1.

He did a list of underrated westerns for my previous series which you should have a peek at:
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2014/03/underrated-westerns-john-damico.html

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Beach Red (1967)
Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey is one of the four or five most influential action/adventure movies ever made. Everything from Jeremiah Johnson to Apocalypto to Gravity is in its shadow. Wilde followed that classic up with the grim WWII vehicle Beach Red, which is for my money just as innovative but seems to have slipped completely through the cracks. It opens with a beach assault that anticipates the relentless onslaught of Saving Private Ryan’s first scene, then unfolds into a series of long lingering voiceovers that call to mind The Thin Red Line. Between those two films you have the full gamut of possibilities for shooting war, so to see both styles interwoven here a full 31 years earlier speaks a great deal to Wilde’s under-appreciated ambition, creativity, and remarkable foresight.

China (1943)
Hard to find wartime propaganda quickie directed by John Farrow, whose Two Years Before the Mast and Five Came Back could both fit in on this list. It’s about a gunrunner whose heart goes soft after witnessing the Japanese occupation of China. Alan Ladd, who is dressed exactly precisely like Indiana Jones, puts in a typical complex and magnetic performance, and the criminally underused William Bendix gets to stretch his legs a bit playing a particularly captivating sidekick. Lots of great atmosphere and an ending that still packs a punch. 

Fury of Achilles (1962)
I shouldn’t be surprised that this film is as intelligent as it is, since Greek filmmakers have a long tradition of taking care of their cultural myths. All the same, I’ve never seen another sword and sandals film quite like it. The first half is sort of an imagined preamble to The Iliad and the second half a condensed version of it. What’s added is valuable contextualization and the purely Homeric stuff is handled with grace and dignity. It's really well-paced, with fine craftsmanship and a good handling of the many overlapping conflicts at play. Hell of an achievement for an underbudgeted and overstuffed genre on the wane.

G.I Samurai (1979)
A Japanese Self-Defense Force squad slips back in time and tries to take over the world. It’s a can’t miss premise taken to the next level by a thunderous central performance by the great Sonny Chiba. The filmmakers waste no time laboring over the premise, there’s an immediate descent into megalomaniac violence. Best of all, the film never cheats to create honest even stakes — the soldiers of the past use guerrilla tactics against lumbering tanks and helicopters and, in the film’s tremendous finale, sheer numbers play a hand in the fighting. Stunning oversized action scenes. It walks a fine line of seriousness in the face of surreality, without falling prey to either too much somberness or silliness. This one is a cult classic still waiting for its cult.

The Hunters (1958)
The story of a few US pilots in the Korean War. To date the only adaptation of a James Salter novel, it’s practically unrecognizable when held against the master’s novel, which is permeated on every page with gut-wrenching fear of failure. None of that’s here, instead there’s a lot of two-fisted punchin' and embarrassing Anglo-centrism, and it's a shame because they threw away a lot of good stuff to juvenilize the story. So why do I include it? Because in the midst of all the wretched character drama is a treasure trove of simply extraordinary, beautiful, and deeply exciting arial photography, the caliber of which I have never seen matched. Glimmering F-86s, which barely ever show up in movies, streak across magnificent panoramas. It’s an essential flying film, despite being a pretty ho-hum drama.

Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)
The modern movie fist fight was invented by Republic serials, when efficiency-craving directors began to borrow Busby Berkeley's method for shooting dances by breaking them into beats. This is my favorite of that whole strange, fun, no-budget chapter of our film heritage. Co-directed by legendary stunt coordinator Yakima Cannut, the man who doubled for John Wayne jumping onto the horse team at the end of Stagecoach, Manhunt of Mystery Island is a breakneck delight, sort of an Indiana Jones-does-Scooby Doo combination of cheesy haunted house atmosphere and old school drag-out brawls. The preferred method of staging a fight back then was to fill a room with breakable props, a technique that reaches its zenith in the one fight scene in which a man systematically throws every single handheld object in a room at another, all in one unbroken take. The take is the only thing left unbroken.

Message from Space (1978)
An unabashed Star Wars knock-off elevated by Kinji Fukasaku's energetic yakuza-film directing and Vic Morrow's fun lead performance. It gleefully goes surreal, emphasizing the fantasy film undercurrent of Star Wars — we have masted sailing spaceships and towering magicians mixing in among the lasers and robots. There are some visual elements like latticed windows and oversized holograms that Lucas himself borrowed for The Empire Strikes Back.

Prehistoric Beast (1985)
Special effects pioneer Phil Tippet’s ten minute demonstration of his go-motion technique is a simply wonderful dinosaur film in the vein of King Kong’s Skull Island stuff. Unusually for a tech demo, the camerawork is strong and ahead of its time. There’s a lot of quick, frantic faux-handheld stuff during the fight which feels pretty fresh even today. Tippet’s next shot behind the director’s chair was the virtually unwatchable Starship Troopers 2.

Snow Trail (1947)
The year before Drunken Angel would define Akira Kurosawa’s directorial style, he wrote this brisk tale of three bank robbers hiding out on a snowy mountain. The film was directed by Senkichi Taniguchi, but it belongs unambiguously to Kurosawa. His constant collaborator Takashi Shimura stars, so does a never-before-seen intense young man named Toshiro Mifune, who Kurosawa insisted they cast against the producer’s wishes. It’s a haunting and low-key work, the Japanese answer to the American noirs and heist films. An amazing early work for many soon-to-be stars and a great film in its own right.

Suspense (1913)
Very probably the first action film directed by a woman, Lois Weber’s 10 minute vignette about a prowler still packs a visual wallop a hundred years later. D.W. Griffith’s very similar A Burglar’s Dilemma was just a year earlier, but this film’s innovative split screens, cross-cutting, and tight framing feel decades ahead of the competition. 

Swashbuckler (1976)
Pirates Robert Shaw and James Earl Jones fight evil governor Peter Boyle in a long black wig. Genevive Bujold and Beau Bridges round out an improbably good cast. There’s some witty writing and finely crafted if a little shopworn action scenes. It’s one of those movies that seems really excited to be on screen, a genuinely uncynical throwback to a genre it loves - sort of like the next year’s Star Wars. That film casts a pall over this one, because it makes you realize how desperately Swashbuckler needs a strong score to push it into the top tier. As it stands it’s fun and lightweight, buoyed by a totally magnetic Robert Shaw at the top of his game having the time of his life. It’s like a victory lap for him after Jaws.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Underrated Action/Adventure - Laird Jimenez

Laird, like myself, has worked at video stores over the years to feed his passion for movie watching. He's does video editing for the legendary Alamo Drafthouse and hosts/programs for their "Weird Wednesday" series. He did an interview about it last year:
http://lightscameraaustin.net/interviews/laird_jimenez_december_2013
See more about what's going on there at the Drafthouse Cinephile Facebook Group:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/177453722382314/
Laird has good taste and watches a lot of movies. I have often made discoveries based on his suggestions.
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Chandu the Magician (1932)
William Cameron Menzies visual style made this fun, pulpy adventure about a mystical hero a classic in my eyes.

Man in the Iron Mask (1939)
Louis Hayward in dual roles is absolutely charming as Philippe of Gascony and mustache-twirling villainous as Louis XIV.


Mark of Zorro (1940)
Basil Rathbone makes a great villain and the sword fights are intense and shockingly violent!

Play Dirty (1968)
A post-Dirty Dozen men-on-a-mission movie starring Michael Caine that ups the cynicism and the explosions to great effect.

Big Guns (1973) (aka Tony Arzenta aka No Way Out)
Essentially a Eurocrime mash-up of Le Samourai and The Big Heat. Alain Delon is cool as ice as a hitman hellbent on revenge against Richard Conte and the other gangsters who ruined his life. Contains great uses of a fishtank and a train window.

Big Racket (1976)
Enzo Castellari is in my opinion one of the greatest action directors of all time, and this post-Dirty Harry violent cop tale is one of his best (along with Street Law and High Crime). Castellari often allows his protagonists moments of extreme vulnerability. In this one it involves lead Fabio Testi rolling over several times in a car with a camera mounted to the dashboard to capture it all. Pleasing on every level.

Who'll Stop the Rain (1978)
One of these days we'll stop beating around the bush and recognize en masse how great Michael Moriarty was. This is maybe more of a drama than an action movie for the first hour and a half, but when the Nolte hits the fan, this earns its place among the rest of the movies on this list.

A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (1989)
For some reason I rarely see this prequel brought up except as a footnote to John Woo's previous two entries in the series. It's diabolically clever and features the wild, frenetic action one would expect from Tsui Hark. Anita Mui is a sultry femme fatale who teaches Chow Yun-Fat how to dress and wield two guns at once, what's not to love?

Crimson Charm (1970)
Probably more underseen than underrated as it's only available on a Region 3 DVD from Hong Kong, this Shaw Brothers epic opens where The Empire Strikes Back leaves off: with a close-knit family dismembered and scattered to the wind by an evil gang. The rest of the movie follows the aftermath and ensuing revenge plot as the survivors separately begin their bloody, bloody path to satisfaction.

Duel to the Death (1983)
Contender for my favorite ninja movie. In this movie ninjas can do anything: fly through the air on kites, burrow underground like Bugs Bunny, morph together into a giant ninja... All of the comic book ridiculousness and exciting swordplay just barely masks that this is yet another movie about animosity between China and Japan.



Female Yakuza Tale (1973)
Sleazy pinky violence elevated by the gorgeous Reiko Ike's smoldering, fierce performance, beautiful photography, and perhaps the most absurd drug smuggling plot ever. If you're not won over during the opening credits sequence, this may not be the movie for you.



Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Underrated Action/Adventure - Guy Hutchinson

Guy Hutchinson has worked as a radio talk show host and personality on WHWH and WMGQ radio in NJ and is currently the co-host of  'Drunk On Disney,' 'Adventure Club,' 'Flux Capaci-cast' and 'Camel Clutch Cinema' podcasts. Over the years he has interviewed Mick Foley, Bernie Kopell, Andy Richter, Bebe Neuwirth, Joe Camp, Marvin Kaplan, Robbie Rist and many other entertainment figures.

A blogger since 2004, Guy blogs irregularly on bunchojunk.com and is the sole correspondent for the Ken PD Snydecast Experience. You can follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook and find links to all of his work on guyhutchinson.com.

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I love action films. I think a bad action film is about equal to a good film in any other genre. Here are some I hope are new to you! Check 'em out!



Secret Service of the Air (1939)
I have come to the conclusion over the years that Ronald Reagan's acting skills are underrated. I grew up in the 1980s when he had risen to the Presidency of the United States when it was easy to look at his film career the way we would look at a paper route or retail job we once had. Heck, Reagan used to joke about his acting.
It's understandable that people had trouble properly grading his performances, because whether you liked him or not, it was hard to watch him on a screen and not think about his Presidency.
But with the passage of time and the advent of TCM I have checked out several of his films. Some performances aren't great (She's Working Her Way Through College) but in the right role he shined.
Secret Service of the Air was one of 4 films (released over the course of 15 months!) where he played Lieutenant "Brass" Bancroft. The films are all tight exciting and feature an exciting plot involving smuggling flights.

Roaring Fire aka Hoero Tekken (1982)
About ten years ago I was at a horror convention and among the list of midnight films was this oddball kung fu film. What made me decide to stick around until midnight was the appearance of pro wrestling legend Abdullah the Butcher. I enjoyed the film immensely. It was quirky, it was funny and it was loaded with great action. It took a while to track it down on VHS, but I have enjoyed it many times since. The plot involves separated twins, revenge and Sonny Chiba as a magician. Yeah, you need to see it.

The Legend of Billie Jean (1985)
I loved this film when it aired on cable in the mid 1980s. I watched it over and over. I'm not ashamed to admit my workout mix still includes the theme song "Invincible" by Pat Benatar.
Admittedly this is more of a drama than and adventure film, but it does involve people on the run, gun play, fire and a hostage situation. 
Helen Slater and Christian Slater are so great as brother and sister I am still shocked they aren't related!
Go check it out. I bet you'll be cheering when Billie Jean cuts her hair. Fair is fair.

The Rookie (1990)
For most of the late 1980s and early 1990s I never went to the movies. In 1990, I think the only film I saw in the theater was The Rookie. I went because my older brother wanted to see it and offered to pay. Perhaps the fondness I have for the film is solely based on that nostalgia. Still, when I rewatched it last week I couldn't help but smile at the interactions between "grizzled veteran cop" Clint Eastwood and "by the book rookie cop" Charlie Sheen.
It's may be as a superficial as the sprinkles on a doughnut, but it's also just as fun.

Blown Away (1994)
This film was dismissed as a Speed knock off when it arrived in theaters, but I have always liked it. In fact, I would rank this in my top 10 films of all time. Rarely a year goes by where I don't load this DVD up for another spin. 
It's an exciting tale of a mad bomber and a cop with a secret past. Tommy Lee Jones is the highlight for me as the over the top Irish terrorist. I think I have all his lines memorized.
Of note, there is also a CD-ROM game based on this movie with other actors. It's not easy, but in this day of online guides and cheats it is a fun game to try.

Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (1973)
This is the sequel to Slaughter, both starring football star Jim Brown as the titular vigilante. It's a fun by the numbers revenge film with Slaughter going after a mob boss that wronged him.
The reason this film stands out is the inspired (and bizarre) casting of the mob boss, Duncan. Duncan is played by Ed McMahon. Yep, THAT Ed McMahon. He chews the scenery and is quite fun (and good) in the role.


The Concorde... Airport '79 (1979)
Despite being one of the most profitable film series of it's time, Airport doesn't seem to get the recognition you would expect today. The first one is head and shoulders above the sequels, but for the sheer time capsule of Concorde travel I do recommend giving this one another look. The film has all the cliches of 1970s disaster films, but that's not a bad thing if you are a fan of cliched 1970s disaster films! I certainly am! Susan Blakely is gorgeous and plays her part well. George Kennedy puts in a fine effort and the film is certainly worth watching.
Steel (1979)
George Kennedy also stars in this film as a construction foreman with a fear of heights. He and his workers are building a massive skyscraper but are being threatened by the thugs of an evil tycoon. The film has some great stunt work.
This film is sadly notable for a stunt gone wrong. Legendary stuntman A.J. Bakunas died attempting a record fall from the building in the film.


Enter the Ninja (1981)
Let's go out on a happier note! Enter the Ninja was a big part of the ninja craze of the 1980s. Legendary film ninja Sho Kosugi is amazing as Hasegawa. The film tells the story of old rivals and a CEO who wants to buy some land that isn't for sale. Wonderful action scenes. The film has two semi-sequels: Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination, both featuring Sho Kosugi.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Twilight Time - VIOLENT SATURDAY and BORN YESTERDAY on Blu-ray

BORN YESTERDAY (1950; George Cukor)
Gosh, it really is a remarkable thing when you find yourself in the hands of a highly skilled director like George Cukor. It's been said that some if the best directors make themselves invisible and Cukor does that in the most perfect way. He just knows instinctively where to put the camera, how long to hold on a shot, how long to let a scene play and so forth. Sounds like it should be easy right? Cukor makes it look like it is. He had directed something like 40 films prior to BORN YESTERDAY and he clearly learned a lot and honed his skills throughout that time. I'm reminded of one of my favorite exchanges in Scorsese's THE KING OF COMEDY wherein Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) is giving advice to Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) about comedy. Langford is trying to make clear to Pupkin that comedy takes years to perfect. He says that timing in particular is tricky in that the great comics make it look simple, as though it were just a matter of taking another breath in between jokes. But knowing when to take that breath and how long to pause is something that a comic can work at for decades in order to make it look natural and easy. Cukor is a craftsman if the highest order in that he does indeed make it all look so easy. Something as uncomplicated as a scene with Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford playing gin rummy. Cukor makes a choice to let the scene play in this wonderful way. It's very observational in nature and I love it. Your first instinct might be to almost get antsy, waiting for a big joke or something to punctuate the scene. But soon you realize it's not about that and you settle in to just watch the two characters interact. That's where the trust comes in. This feeling washes over you that's like, "Okay, he wants to show me something and I know it'll all make sense cause this guy knows what he's doing". So often these days I feel like some movies, especially comedies don't ever take their time like this film does . There's really something to be said for taking your time. There's also something to be said for great actors and BORN YESTERDAY has some true greats. WIlliam Holden and the previously mentioned Broderick Crawford and Judy Holliday are all fantastic here. In watching the film I was reminded again what a difference a great director makes. That's not to say that these actors weren't pretty solid in basically every movie they did, but you really get a sense of something above average when you watch actors do their thing in a George Cukor film. Cukor does particularly well with trios of actors. Case in point: THE PHILADEPHIA STORY. Three great actors (Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant) who really strut their stuff in an exceptional way resulting in one of the great comedies ever. Cukor seems to trust his actors a lot (as they must implicitly trust him) and he demonstrates that by letting them act and often not cutting scenes up as much as some other directors. Editing is a marvelous tool for storytelling, but a strong director knows when to knock it off and showcase his actors.






VIOLENT SATURDAY (1955; Richard Fleischer)
Richard Fleischer is one of those directors where, if you start digging through his filmography, there are many gems to be discovered. I can't recall which was the first Fleischer film I ever saw (that honor may go to SOYLENT GREEN or 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA), but he immediately impressed me. Something about the kind of films he ended up making and the way he composed his frames grabbed my attention. I think that COMPULSION was another one I saw that caught my attention in a similar way. 
In VIOLENT SATURDAY, Fleischer made a very character-oriented heist film. Some might find it dull perhaps as the film really takes its time getting to the action, but I think it's pretty interesting as far as entries in this sub-genre go. Feels a bit like it's one part heist film and one part Sirk-ian melodrama which is an interesting combination for sure. The focus is a bit more on Victor Mature and his relationship with his son (same kid as in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER). It's a nice early role for Lee Marvin, wherein he is introduced early as a sadist who enjoys stepping on a little boy's hand. But Marvin's presence alone always elevates a film for me and this is no exception. Also in a smaller supporting role is Ernest Borgnine as an Amish farmer (pre-dating DEADLY BLESSING by about 30 years). As little as Marvin and Borgnine are in the film, they have a nice little square off at the end at least. Overall though, VIOLENT SATURDAY is an enjoyable, slow-burn, heist-thriller that slots well into Fleischer's canon of movies along with things like MR. MAJESTYK and THE NEW CENTURIONS. 

This Blu-ray transfer is is just gorgeous. Always nice to see a bright, CinemaScope movie in this kind of wonderful presentation.

Supplements:
This Twilight Time Blu-ray includes a commentary from two of my current favorite film people at the moment - Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo. This always reliable duo dishes out plenty of great background and observations about the film. They touch on all of the major actors in the film as well as a brief history of Fleischer and his career. They further discuss the question of whether the movie is a film noir or a melodrama. Apparently, in some circles, it is left out of the noir canon. I have to say though, I'm with Julie on this one. It's hard for me not to see it as a film that should be talked about in the same breath as noirs. Sure, the melodramatic elements are rather prominent, but that should not be a disqualifier. Overall, it's a fun track for sure. As I've said of Nick and Julie before - listening  them is like hanging out with a couple jovial film professors who just unabashedly love cinema. Good stuff.



Both these Blu-rays and more Twilight Time titles can be purchased via Screen Archives here:

http://www.screenarchives.com/display_results.cfm/category/546/TWILIGHT-TIME/

Warner Archive Grab Bag: ARSENE LUPIN and Joan Crawford

ARSENE LUPIN Double Feature
From Warner Archive's site:
"Crime pays handsomely in this smart and stylish double feature based on the adventures of Arsene Lupin, fiction’s most famous gentleman thief. john and Lionel Barrymore “make a marvelous team in their first film together” (Leonard Maltin ‘s Classic Movie Guide) in the risque Pre-Code mystery Arséne Lupin (1932), costarring Karen Morley. A wily police detective matches wits with France's greatest criminal as the notorious thief attempts to make good on his threat to steal the Mona Lisa."

One of the more charming characters in movies is the "gentleman thief". 
I was completely unaware of this film until less than a month ago. As part of my recent Underrated Detective/Mysteries series, one of my guest list-ers happened to pick this film as an underrated gem of the genre:
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2014/05/underrated-detectivemysteries-clayton.html
John and Lionel Barrymore are two of the great heavyweight stars of American cinema in all of like... ever. Both of them command the screen with their fierce personalities and some of the highest on-screen charisma wattage imaginable. Seeing them go toe to toe as sort of rivals in this film was nothing if not a pleasure to witness. It's almost too much for the frame to have both of them onscreen at the same time. They both have such star power that one is reminded of what it was that made a movie star a movie star back in the day. They just command you subconsciously to watch them. 
ARSEN LUPIN is based on a play from 1909 by Maurice Leblanc. Jack Conway's (LIBELED LADY, THE HUCKSTERS and VIVA VILLA!) direction and the presence of the brothers Barrymore elevates the material above your standard stage-to-screen adaptation. In a silly way, the plot made me think of the opening to the Hanna-Barbara cartoon HONG KONG PHOOEY. You know, the part where the narrator asks, "Who is this superhero?" and proceeds to go through all the major cast members on the show. I kept thinking whilst watching this film, "Who is Arsene Lupin??". In ARSENE LUPIN RETURNS, Melvyn Douglas takes over as the man himself and he's joined by WAC favorite Warren William as well as Virgina Bruce. Douglas has this tendency to surprise me in roles like this, as I often underrated him for some reason.
From WAC's site:
"Having faked his own death, Lupin (Douglas) Claims he’s retired and assumes the role of a gentleman farmer. But when a series of robberies suggests that the thief is still alive, an insurance detective (Warren William) attempts to track him down. convinced of Lupin‘s guilt."
This is a delightful set and both films are worthwhile. I'm very pleased to seem them out there and available for discovery.
This set can be purchased here:
http://bit.ly/1nCs0aV

THE LAST OF MRS. CHEYNEY (1937; Richard Boleslawski)
This movie is clearly an influence on the Cuba Gooding Jr. laugh riot BOAT TRIP and I'm stunned that nobody has acknowledged it. Clearly I'm joking, but nonetheless my mind did think of BOAT TRIP for some odd reason at least once whilst I was viewing this movie. The two films have no connection whatever except for their shipboard setting (which is only or the 1st 15 mins or so). And I hate to say it but Mr. Gooding Jr. ain't no Robert Montgomery. This 1937 comedy has a nice breezy feeling about it. It helps to have Montgomery and Nigel Bruce as two of the principles. While I'm most used to seeing Bruce alongside Basil Rathbone, this was a refreshing change and he and Montgomery were a lively duo. Add in the mugging of Frank Morgan (who's verbal double-takes are among the best ever) and you're getting somewhere. Pile on William Powell and you're really cooking.
This movie starts off like something from an 80s teen comedy. Montgomery, the philanderer, bets pal Nigel Bruce he can kiss Joan Crawford and when he fails, he takes a spirited interest in her. What he doesn't know is that Mr. Cheyney (Crawford) has a bit of a secret about her true intentions underlying the boat trip and later a charity event she's put on at her home. This movie eventually becomes one of those stories where one character has to reveal their true nature to an unsuspecting other and the other is forced to play the betrayal card or let it go. The best scene(s) are with Montgomery and Crawford and Montgomery and Powell (and later, Montgomery, Crawford and Powell). It's cool to see William Powell playing a butler only 1 year after MY MAN GODFREY even if it's only briefly.

I LIVE MY LIFE (1935; W.S. Van Dyke)
Watching this film back to back with MRS. CHEYNEY is a bit jarring at first as Joan Crawford is teamed with Frank Morgan again. What's funny though is that the first words out of her mouth in this movie are acknowledging Morgan as her father (whereas in CHEYNEY he was proposing to her). Anyway, I LIVE MY LIVE is an affable little comedy/drama about a wealthy socialite named Kay Bentley (Crawford), who while on holiday, meets up with and falls for an archaeologist (Brian Aherne). The two are smitten with each other and the archaelogist perhaps a bit more so as he follows Kay back to her social circles at home, which he doesn't exactly fit into all that well. It's a pleasant movie and I give credit to both Crawford (who is both lovely and rather adorable at this age) and director W.S. Van Dyke (THE THIN MAN, AFTER THE THIN MAN, TARZAN THE APE MAN). Oh and perhaps a script by a certain Joseph L. Mankiewicz (ALL ABOUT EVE, THE BAREFOOT CONTESS) might have helped as well.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

Scorpion Releasing - SORCERESS (on Blu-ray) plus GRIZZLY and GREEN ICE on DVD

SORCERESS (1982: Jack Hill)
Jack Hill is one of those directors that I continue to marvel at more and more all the time. I believe it was Tarantino who compared him to Howard Hawks in that both directors worked in large variety of genres and seemed to do all of them pretty well (or better). Now I've seen Jack Hill do plenty of action (COFFY, FOXY BROWN, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS etc), cult drama (SPIDER BABY, PIT STOP), horror (BLOOD BATH) and even sex comedy (THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS), but I had never ever seen him take on a fantasy/sword and scorcery type thing like this. He was lucky enough to collaborate with the legendary Jim Wynorski on the writing side so that certainly helps give this movie a special flavor as it were. Wynorski himself would of course dive headlong into fantasy filmmaking himself with his feature debut (THE LOST EMPIRE) in 1985 and then again with DEATHSTALKER II in 1987 so he was kind of cutting his teeth here. The resulting film is absolutely memorable and has been a bit of a mythical thing in its own right as it has been properly available on home video for some time (or perhaps ever). This is truly sad in that it seems clear that SORCERESS might have had a similar following to fantasy movies like BEASTMASTER, CLASH OF THE TITANS and CONAN THE BARBARIAN. SORCERESS really feels like CLASH OF THE TITANS meets more sword and sorcery in the style of BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS. The Corman-y side of it is that there is a decent amount of nudity (the film has two twin playboy playmates in the central roles) and it's all done on what is obviously a pretty small budget. Apparently this film was something of a struggle between Corman and Hill who had perhaps gone one or two pictures past the point they should have as far as their working relationship. Due to some creative differences, Hill left the project during post-production so the resulting film is not 100% his vision. That being said, it is still a very entertaining fantasy tale that has been unjustly forgotten in the time since it was first released.

This Scorpion Releasing Blu-ray is one of the first in an upcoming group of co-releases with Kino Lorber and it is a very exciting start to this venture indeed. Beyond being a good-looking Blu-ray (considering the source material and the type of film we're talking about), and the cut of the film being presented is a longer version (82 minutes) than was previously available. Additionally, this disc also has a number of supplements to peruse as well.

--"The Magic Behind SORCERESS - an Interview with Roger Corman" (7 mins) - Corman lays out background on the film and illustrates the business side of things as well as the production and post production aspects as he recalls them
-- "The Illusion Behind SORCERESS - an Interview with John Carl Buechler" (16 mins) - Special effects wizard (& director Buechler) discusses his process of developing the effects for SORCERESS and how he came to the project (he had worked on the effects for FORBIDDEN WORLD just previous to this). Buechler goes into detail in regards to all the effects and how he was able to get them done on a shoestring budget.
--"The Incantation Behind SORCERESS - an Interview with Jim Wynorski" (10 mins) - Director Wynorksi talks about being asked by Corman to write the script for SORCERESS in one week (the Monday after CONAN THE BARBARIAN opened). He also briefly discusses Jack Hills original longer cut of the film and what Corman disliked about it and was later cut out. Wynorski is always entertaining in interviews and this is no exception. He's a straight shooter and speaks his mind rather explicitly.
--"an Interview with Post Production Supervisor Clark Henderson" (9 mins)
-Henderson gives another perspective on the film's making via the finishing process. He also has some interesting anecdotes about Corman and Hill and how they clashed a bit on this movie.





GRIZZLY (1976; William Girdler)
I have often said that "knockoffs" are some of my favorite things in cinema. By favorite, I obviously don't mean top-of-the-line-quality movies exactly, but rather movies that set out to do one thing and bring me great comfort when they pull it off properly.
William Girdler is one of those directors that was taken from us far too early and who clearly had a lot more great movies in him when he was killed (in a helicopter crash whilst scouting locations for a movie in the Philippines) at the age of 30 years old. Let's examine the "legacy" that Girdler left behind shall we. He made THE MANITOU (his last film), which was the story of a woman who discovers that a boil growing on her back is in fact the reincarnation of a 400 year-old demonic Native American spirit. That movie is something else and needs to be seen to be believed. Girdler also directed ABBY which is basically just a Black version of THE EXORCIST. He did THREE ON A MEATHOOK, which is his rather memorable attempt at a slasher flick. And then of course he did DAY OF THE ANIMALS and GRIZZLY, two of the greatest "animal attack" movies ever made. DAY OF THE ANIMALS is notorious for an unforgettable scene in which a crazy, topless Leslie Nielsen fights a bear. Good stuff. Then of course we have GRIZZLY, which is also one of the best JAWS knockoffs ever brought to the screen. I consider myself something of a JAWS-knockoff aficionado and I think that this film and THE CAR are two of the best out there as well as being my personal favorites. Girdler made no bones at all about lifting the story structure and basic plot right out of Spielberg's blockbuster classic and inserting it into a National Forest whilst supplanting the killer Great White with an 18-foot tall grizzly bear to terrorize campers. Like JAWS, GRIZZLY was rated PG in 1976 (a time well before the PG-13 rating) but it is what I like to fondly label as the "70s PG". The "70s PG" can and often does include things like nudity and graphic violence that would at least be part of a PG-13 film nowadays and would perhaps even push into R-rated territory. As is often said of the 1970s (and prior), "It was a different time". I distinctly recall showing GRIZZLY to my then 8 or 9 year old son after having not watched it for many years. I relied on its PG rating to be solid and not indicative of anything too harsh in the movie. That was dumb on my part I'll admit. So in an early scene when the grizzly attacks some campers and rips one of their arms off, sending it flying across the screen - I remember saying to myself, "Ok so I've just scarred my child a little bit with that scene" and making a mental note to never trust the "70s PG" ever again. GRIZZLY is not without its many charms though. Not the least of which is a very grumpy Christopher George in the "Chief Brody" role and a nutty Richard Jaeckel as the "Quint" type. I think GRIZZLY is one of those films that I find oddly nostalgic for some reason. Like the disaster-thriller ROLLERCOASTER from the next year, it reminds me of a time when families seemed a little more active than they are now. There was no internet and no movies and video games at home so people were more in the habit of going out to National Parks to camp or going to amusement parks in droves to entertain themselves. It's a silly minor thing that I like about this movie, but overall it's just a fun copy of JAWS and for a huge fan of that film like myself, it's very easy for me to see it as a lively and relatively creative ripoff of that fantastic film. As an addendum reason why I love it, GRIZZLY is also shot in 2.40 to 1 widescreen which is a format I adore.

This GRIZZLY disc has some added special features:

-a New Beverly Screening Q&A with star Andrew Prine and producer David Sheldon (12 mins) - Both Sheldon and Prine give lots of great background and stories about how the film was made and how it initially got off the ground.
-A "JAWS with Claws - a look back at GRIZZLY" (37 mins) - This featurette contains interviews with David Sheldon, Andrew Prine and actress Joan McCall as well as writer Harvey Flaxman.


GREEN ICE (1981; Ernest Day)
In GREEN ICE, Ryan O'Neal plays a kind of everyman unemployed electronics engineer vacationing in Mexico who gets sucked into the world of emerald  smuggling after hooking up with the adorable Anne  Archer, a rich gal whose father works in the diamond trade. Archer enlists O'Neal's help in searching for her missing sister (not surprisingly, her sister's disappearance is connected with emeralds).
Heist movies are almost always a good time. They are kind of like slasher films in that respect. Even the worst ones still have some good moments of tension of one cool scene or another. Heist movies inevitably feature things like the "gathering of the team", and the often very entertaining "planning the job" sequences that often quite entertaining. Then of course there's always a decent (at least) bit of tension on display at some point where the thieves are obligatorily almost caught in the act or make some mistake that may cause the whole job to go south. Even THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER has some of these structural  bits (and even humorously juxtaposes two rather opposite "getting our gear together" scenes). And then there are "Smuggling Movies".  "Smuggling Movies" are a kind of subgenre of heist pictures. They have many similar tropes and suspenseful situations. Instead of avoiding security guards and police, smuggling movies often involve potentially tangling with soldiers with automatic weapons. GREEN ICE presents something a little different and more adventurous than your average caper flick though. I've heard it called ROMANCING THE STONE before ROMANCING THE STONE and that is an interesting comparison.  There definitely seems to be some Hitchcock in mix in this film as well. Watching the opening titles from the film below, you'll see that among other things, it clearly wanted to be a James Bond film as well.

Find out more about these titles and order them here:
http://www.scorpionreleasing.com/

Friday, July 25, 2014

Kino Lorber Studio Classics - DUEL AT DIABLO and PARIS BLUES

DUEL AT DIABLO (1966; Ralph Nelson)
With the recent, very unfortunate passing of the great James Garner, it's hard to resist the temptation to dive back into his filmography and poke around a bit. He made a ton of good films and one need look no further than THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, GRAND PRIX, or  36 HOURS to see that. He is also a man who is very strongly associated with the western genre. He played a bunch of memorable western characters, including the venerable Bret Maverick on television. Like Jim Rockford, Bret Maverick was a character that Garner clearly made his own in a serious way. Garner was one of those actors who made the craft look so simple, so naturalistic and he had an easy-going charm and the sly smile of a true movie star. 
As I mentioned, James Garner is a good fit for westerns and he slots right in to DUEL AT DIABLO perfectly. There's actually a decent amount of interesting context surrounding DIABLO. It was apparently James Garner 's return to the western genre after his departure from MAVERICK. The film also stars actress Bibi Andersson, who was most known for her work with Ingmar Bergman. In the same year that she made this film she also starred in PERSONA, which is absolutely one of Bergman's best films.
Early on in DIABLO, James Garner's character does this clever bit of horse riding that I'm not sure I've ever seen before. It's a cool trick where he (or his stuntman) rides between two horses, using one of them for cover whilst an Apache tries to tear him up with rifle fire. It's just a short stunt, but it's pretty clever and fantastic. The cast of characters in DIABLO is is a lively bunch indeed. Garner plays a frontier scout who is on the hunt for the folks that killed his wife (a Comanche Indian). While in the desert he happens upon a young woman (Andersson) who has run off from her town and is about to be killed by ornery Apaches. He returns her to her less than enthusiastic husband (a very young and handsome Dennis Weaver) who is not thrilled she's come back as she has a bad rep in town for going off and having a child with some Indians earlier on and keeps skipping town to avoid persecution. Sidney Poitier is a horse trainer who has a deal with the army to break in and supply them with a bunch of horses, but when one of their regiments is forced to go out on assignment before he's had the allotted time to deliver all that equine goodness, he's forced to tag along. The whole rag tag bunch gets stranded in a canyon, under the thumb of more Apaches. It's a tension filled scenario to be sure!
Outside of good tension and a solid cast (which also includes the great William RedField), DIABLO has some lovely music by Neal Hefti. Hefti is probably most well-remembered for his theme to THE ODD COUPLE and his musical stylings on the 60s BATMAN TV show. It was a lovely thing to hear his scoring efforts for a western like this one:
Director Ralph Nelson had something of an interesting, off-beat career. He may be best remembered for things like LILIES OF THE FIELD, CHARLY and the Cary Grant classic FATHER GOOSE, but his less widely known films such as SOLDIER IN THE RAIN, SOLDIER BLUE, WRATH OF GOD and ...tick...tick...tick are all quite good. He also did the borderline Blaxploitation film A HERO AIN'T NOTHIN BUT A SANDWICH (it is often lumped into that group of films, but is much gentler than that. 

This is another bright and detailed Blu-ray transfer from KL Studio Classics. Looks right nice.




PARIS BLUES (1961; Martin Ritt)
Two years before their remarkable collaboration on HUD, Paul Newman and Martin Ritt teamed up on this lesser-known little film. They had worked together previously on THE LONG, HOT SUMMER in 1958, which also featured Newman's wife-to-be Joanne Woodward (they were married after that film) who would join him again in PARIS BLUES. Clearly Ritt and Newman had some kind of rapport as they worked quite well together. I still think of HUD as not only one of Newman's best performances, but also one of the great films of the 1960s (which is also in need of a Blu-ray release by the way).
Jazz movies are an intriguing thing. It's easy for me to picture myself just hanging out in a Jazz club in during this era in either New York or Paris. There's such a lovely vibe to not only the music, but the people who have wandered in or staked a claim at a table in one of these clubs. I've always seen Jazz musicians and Jazz collectors alike as pretty cool folks and though I've never been able to dive head first into Jazz myself, I admire those who have and can easily see the appeal. 
PARIS BLUES is, quite simply, the story of two jazz musicians (Newman and Poitier) who move to Paris to get away from New York and its racial complications only to find love with two New York girls (Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll) and be forced to decide whether to return to the states. It's a wonderful, romantic film as you might expect a film set in Paris with the music of Duke Ellington accompanying it to be. There's also a pretty outstanding jam session featuring the legendary Louis Armstrong himself at one point and that kinda thing is pretty hard to beat in any movie. I saw a similar scene in the Danny Kaye classic TEH FIVE PENNIES not too long ago and it was certainly the highlight of that flick as well.
Between DUEL AT DIABLO and PARIS BLUES, it was nice to see a couple of Poitier performances that I was previously unfamiliar with. He is one of our great actors and never ever shows up to deliver anything but a quality performance. He has a fierce and conversely gentle presence on screen and a unique magnetism. Newman is similarly charismatic of course and like a great Jazz number, it is a spectacular thing to see them riffing off of each other as only two truly excellent actors can. The ladies are equally up to the task here as well and both just stunning to behold. I always love to see real couples playing on-screen couples and Newman and Woodward are dynamite here. Not to say that a couple of actors with remarkable on-screen chemistry isn't a glorious thing to watch too, but there is a subtle something extra when you get the chance to observe real couples. It elevates an already romantic film in a romantic setting to another level entirely.

Here's a sample of Ellington's music for the film:
It's a gorgeous piece and it really exemplifies the "what it is" that draws people to Jazz in general. Like PARIS BLUES itself, it is at once melancholy and yet joyful, tense and yet relaxed. It is a living breathing organism that won't be contained or classified as one thing. It is beautiful.
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