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Friday, February 22, 2019

Film Discoveries of 2018 - David Bax

David is co-host of the long-running and excellent Battleship Pretension Podcast, which I highly recommend.
http://battleshippretension.com/
https://twitter.com/DaveyPretension

See his Discoveries lists from last couple years too:
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2018/03/film-discoveries-of-2017-david-bax.html
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2017/02/film-discoveries-of-2016-david-bax.html
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2016/03/film-discoveries-of-2015-david-bax.html
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2015/02/favorite-film-discoveries-of-2014-david.html

10. Peppermint Soda (1977; Diane Kurys)
Director Diane Kurys, who also cowrote the screenplay, divides Peppermint Soda into episodes which are clearly delineated by the fade-outs that end each one, like the curtain falling on another chapter of protagonist Anne’s (Eleonore Klarwein) childhood. Kurys also peppers the film with family snapshots of the girls and their parents posing with forced smiles in order to commemorate some noteworthy event, false memories that will outlast the true ones. And yet Kurys is no less particular in staging Anne and her sister Frédérique’s (Odile Michel) actual everyday existence, returning again and again to the same setups in the same rooms. These spaces thus become familiar to us but they also become banal, a bland background for the turmoils that will shape these young women for the rest of their lives. Many of Anne’s troubles come from school and the other girls there. It doesn’t matter that she is a relatively popular girl; eighth grade is a gauntlet of sadism and humiliation nonetheless. It certainly doesn’t help that each teacher and faculty member is effectless in their own way, from the teacher who can’t control her own classroom on one end of the spectrum to the headmistress who views every student as a potential criminal on the other. But then teachers are almost beside the point in Kurys’ vision of school. In Peppermint Soda, school is a place for these girls to learn the social skills they’ll need as they get older. Any other form of education is, at best, an afterthought. Kurys’ pessimism about institutions extends to politics. Frédérique becomes an outspoken leftist and an activist as the school year progresses. But the movie doesn’t give the viewer confidence that this represents anything other than a new group for her to hang out with. When one of her new comrades tells her, “The fight against fascists is never done,” it feels more like trendy new slang than a rallying cry. Frédérique’s testing of new waters, though, is not any less momentous for its base motivations. The strength of coming-of-age stories is that the characters’ personal transformations, minor though they may be in the scheme of things, are treated as revelatory explorations, like the discovery of a new world, which is how they feel to these young people at the time. And so Anne’s constant testing of boundaries–lying or pleading to achieve her desires–is not depicted as brattiness but as adventurous will. We root for her even as we understand from our own experiences that, as autonomy creeps into her life, so will danger. We can feel both joy and fear at once because coming-of-age stories exist in two worlds. While movies about childhood are often about memories, movies about adulthood are just as often about hopes, including the ones that never pan out. The coming-of-age genre can be so bittersweet because it bridges both. Peppermint Soda is a stellar example of the format.
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9. The Unborn (1991; Rodman Flender)
The Unborn’s greatest strength, and a grounding element for a movie that will eventually become wonderfully deranged, is that Virginia’s (Brooke Adams) anxieties begin well before she realizes that something sinister is going on. The film sympathetically explores the fear of parenthood. Virginia has struggled with depression and is understandably worried that she’ll pass her illness on to her child. But, more specifically, The Unborn is interested in the type of anxiety felt by feminists weighing the psychic conflict between their hard-fought independence and their desire to fulfill a traditional female role that has, for so long, been used to keep women down (although the movie does have some fun at the expense of more stereotypical, wacky, granola, lesbian feminists like the one played by Kathy Griffin). When Virginia refers to “this thing growing inside of me,” we the audience may know she’s talking about an actual monster but the metaphor for complicated feelings about impeding motherhood is clear and powerful. And that’s before the movie expands to include other feminist issues like gaslighting and the terror of a literal back alley abortion. Of course, this is also a movie about a demonic fetus. For all of its dialectical unpacking, the film never forgets to have good, schlocky fun. The Unborn is a culty midnight movie that, like far more such films than we tend to credit, has a brain whose synapses are constantly firing away just beneath all the gore.
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8. Belladonna of Sadness (1973; Eiichi Yamamoto)
I’ve been meaning to catch up with Eiichi Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness since its restoration and re-release by Cinelicious Pics a few years ago. I held off, though, for reasons that ended up being well-founded. I’ve never felt more assured providing a trigger warning before recommending a movie before. This bit of rape/revenge folklore is decidedly weighted toward the rape part of the equation and anyone’s refusal to watch it for that reason would be more than supported by me. But its artistic worth is to be found in the hallucinatory beauty of its constantly undulating and reconfiguring pastel, pencil and watercolor imagery. Along with an entrancing acid rock/jazz score by Masahiko Sato, the sheer force of the film’s psychedelia is overwhelming. I’m not here to make the case that the latter makes the former “worth it,” though. You should decide that for yourself.
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7. So This Is Paris (1926; Ernst Lubitsch)
Ernst Lubitsch’s silent, pre-code sex farce So This Is Paris may be more than 90 years old but it just might be the liveliest movie I saw in 2018. This story of two upper crust Parisian couples with the hots for each other (except for their own spouses) moves at roughly a thousand miles per hour and features laughs at approximately the same rate. Lubitsch’s carefree inventiveness lets these jokes take many different forms, from clever uses of intertitles (italics clue us in to the double meaning of the phrase, “Let me lie in peace”) to fantastical elements like a floating cane with a mind of its own and a penchant for violence. Add to that the fact that, despite the lack of audio, the movie essentially contains a musical number in its big ballroom Charleston competition set-piece and there is literally nothing here to complain about.

6. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943; William A. Wellman)
Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan play two cowpokes who are unfortunate enough to happen to roll into town on the same morning a local farmer is shot. Despite their moral qualms, the two decide to ride along with the lynch mob in order to keep from inviting suspicion that they could be the killers and end up meeting the wrong end of the rope themselves. The party comes across three men, led by a young farmer (Dana Andrews). Circumstantial evidence suggests their guilt but–the peskiest thing–they keep insisting, convincingly, on their innocence. What follows bears some resemblance to the kind of heated debate in which Fonda would engage fourteen years later in 12 Angry Men. But, mostly, The Ox-Bow Incident is a damnation of mob mentality and the ability of a sentiment, once agreed upon by enough people, to override reason. It doesn’t help that the mob is made up entirely of men, save for one willful woman (Jane Darwell). Accusations of weakness, both spoken and unspoken, arise immediately when any one of them expresses reservations. “Toxic masculinity” may be a phrase recently coined but the phenomenon it describes isn’t. The movie ends with some Code-dictated suggestions that those who behaved immorally will face punishment. But Wellman doesn’t want you to take any pleasure in that. It’s just the next step in the cycle of human cruelty and misery.
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5. Nitrate Kisses (1992; Barbara Hammer)
It’s strange how rarely we seem to talk about gay culture pre-1969. It’s not as if gay people in America all just suddenly materialized at the Stonewall riots. But the atmosphere was even less friendly than it is today so visibility was understandably and, for survival, necessarily low. In 1992, Barbara Hammer set out to strike a blow against that invisible history with Nitrate Kisses, a collage-style documentary consisting of snippets of found footage accompanied by audio interviews of gay seniors discussing their lives and experiences in the 1940s and 1950s. They were there. They lived and loved. Oh, and they fucked and continue to fuck. Nitrate Kisses also features candid and explicit scenes of lovemaking between its subjects in the film’s present day. Graphic, sure, but it only makes the film more visceral and more moving.
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4. Ryan’s Daughter (1970; David Lean)
Largely unpopular among critics upon its release, Ryan’s Daughter deserves a reappraisal. Sure, a nearly three and a half hour long movie about something as commonplace in cinema as a love triangle may seem self-parodically indulgent but, on the other hand, anyone can make a super long movie when it’s overstuffed. It takes a genius like David Lean to fill up that runtime only with matter of the head and heart (oh, and some beautiful, pastoral cinematography and, oh right, a score by Maurice Jarre). The offscreen backdrop of World War I helps, too. Sarah Miles plays Rosy, the daughter of a publican in a small, Irish town occupied by English soldiers. Like Disney’s Belle, she’s a little too smart and bookish for her surrounding and so she sets her romantic sights on the most worldly man in the area, the schoolteacher (Robert Mitchum doing an Irish accent). They’re married and that goes swimmingly until a smart, handsome, brave Englishman gets assigned to the occupying force after being wounded on the battlefield. What follows is scandalous, not just because Rosy is a married woman but also because Major Doryan (Christopher Jones) is an Englishman. Everybody hates the English, of course. It’s the stuff of a million airport novels but few of them are likely to hold such crazy passion.
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3. Streets of Fire (1984; Walter Hill)
Streets of Fire soaks in its blaring, idiosyncratic style. It takes place in a retrofuturist alternate dimension where 50s greaser and rockabilly culture never stopped, only metastasized. The cops drive Studebakers, the bad guys carry switchblades, everybody’s got slicked-back hair and everything’s awash in neon, as if you’re cruising a boulevard that never ends. At one point, someone even uses the term “juvenile delinquent.” Hill’s not content to stop at one aesthetic choice, though, also layering on leather, bondage and au courant video footage, all of it painted with a coat of fast-talking, hard-boiled dialogue. It all works, somehow, probably because of the sustained, seamless, heightened tone. In that sense, Streets of Fire has a lot in common with yet another genre, the musical. Each scene has a centerpiece production. Some of them are actual musical numbers and some of them are, you know, sledgehammer fights.
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2. Edward II (1991; Derek Jarman)
Derek Jarman’s Edward II (1991), adapted from the play by Christopher Marlowe, is replete with knowing anachronisms, as characters smoke cigarettes, wear leather jackets and taffeta dresses designed by Sally Powell and occasionally retreat from Marlowe’s poetic dialogue, reducing it to sentiments such as, “Fuck ‘em.” One way Jarman does remain true to the era in which the events actually took place (the early 1300s) is in the way that Edward and the court’s surroundings don’t seem especially comfortable. Edward may have lived in a castle but luxuries like heating, cooling, electricity and indoor plumbing didn’t exist yet. And so, probably accurately, Edward II unfolds in mostly spare stone and earthen spaces with narrow strips of harsh light surrounded by deep, black shadows. On the other hand, Jarman emphasizes the contemporary when it comes to Edward and his favored Galveston’s sexuality. When Swinton locates the word “queer” in Marlowe’s text, she hits it hard, making plain what the author likely intended as subtext. And when the English people rise up in protest, they do so as members of Outrage, a real life AIDS activist organization, analogous to Act Up here in the States. Edward II is a fierce and passionate work of art, as timeless as it is of its time.
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1. Queen of Diamonds (1991; Nina Menkes)
Nina Menkes’ 1991 Queen of Diamonds, starring her sister, Tinka Menkes, is a movie that, if you had to sum it up in a narrative sense, is about a Las Vegas blackjack dealer navigating love and friendship while her husband is away on an extended business trip. Except this isn’t really a movie concerned with narrative and, besides, that husband may have left for good or never have existed at all. It doesn’t seem to matter to our protagonist, who deadpans her way through a multitude of vignettes involving everything from the domestic violence of her neighbors to a burning palm tree. It culminates in a long, climactic montage of her dealing blackjack over the course of a long shift that, like a lot of the film, is surprisingly moving and inexplicably hilarious.

Honorable mentions this year include Clarence Brown’s romantic, tragic Flesh and the Devil (1926), Nietzchka Keene’s witchy, Bjork-starring The Juniper Tree (1990), Robert Downey Sr.’s crude but committed satire Greaser’s Palace (1972), Irvin Willat’s shocking wartime revenge story Behind the Door (1919) and a shameful blindspot I finally filled in at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Film Discoveries of 2018 - Dave Wain

Dave Wain is one half of the creative team behind www.theschlockpit.com - an online feast of genre film analysis and leftfield retrospectives. Along with his scribing life-partner, Matty Budrewicz, he’s one of the authors of the acclaimed tome, It Came from the Video Aisle: Inside Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment Studio, which is available now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and all good bookstores. Paired with Matty you can regularly find him scribbling liner notes for an assortment of Blu-ray releases from 88 Films, while studiously beavering away on their new book - Schlock & Awe: 1001 Forgotten Films of the 90s Rental Realm. Dave’s day job is spent at the helm of one of the last Video Stores in the UK, while he can be found on Twitter @thedavewain

I swore back in January that 2018 would be solely focused on our book, but as best laid plans do indeed frequently go to waste, I got distracted! Print media and Blu-ray commissions came in, and I also took my eye off Letterboxd – the backbone to compiling a thoroughly decisive list for Brian’s site! Anyway, I’m sure I’ve missed some, and apologies for the overwhelmingly nineties slant, but here are my 2018 Film Discoveries…

SCORPIO ONE (1998; Worth Keeter)
“90% of the world’s wars could be avoided with one well-aimed bullet…” muses the world-weary CIA Director Parlow (George Murdock), “…I miss the old days.” There’s something undeniably old-school about Steve Latshaw’s scripts, be it a nod to another era or a misty-eyed glance into the past, and that’s precisely what he intended. “Andrew Stevens gave me this unfinished space shuttle script” he told me last year, “So I read it and pitched an alternative idea to him. “How about we do Ice Station Zebra (1968) in space?” I asked, and he said go for it!”

After a disaster on space station Scorpio One that leaves all of its crew members dead, the CIA turn to one of their crack agents, Jared Stone (Jeff Speakman), sending him into space with a team of five elite Rangers to investigate what happened.

As with Memorial Day, another Keeter / Latshaw collaboration from ’98, there’s a real conspiratorial feel to this with the plot being orchestrated from within the Government courtesy of Sen. Treadwell, played with typical gruff assertion by great Lance LeGault. In fact, Speakman is largely outshone by this cast of veteran players, with Steve Kanaly superb and the aforementioned Murdock first class. Prior to shooting, Robert Carradine told Andrew Stevens that Latshaw’s script was the best first draft he’d ever read. That assertion may serve to flatter, but it’s certainly an indication of just how good the core of this picture is.
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CASUALTIES (1997; Alex Graves)
Gary Preisler had the ignominy of his other scripting venture (National Lampoon’s Gold Diggers (2003)) described by the Washington Post as “Stupefyingly Hideous”, which perhaps makes the fact that Casualties sits in the upper echelons of nineties DTV moviedom all the more remarkable. With West Wing directing legend Alex Graves co-scripting and on megaphone duty too, Caroline Goodall stars as Annie Summers, a woman enduring a life lived in fear owing to the violent tendencies of her abusive husband Bill (Jon Gries).

Solace arrives in the shape of a cookery class, her weekly opportunity to break free from her marital shackles and express herself. It’s here that she meets Tommy (Mark Harmon), a recent addition to the group, and someone who seems keen to assist her in eradicating Bill from her life. Everything suddenly seems to be falling into place for Annie, but there’s more to her new cooking buddy than meets the eye.

With over three hundred episodes of NCIS in the can, it’s easy to forget just how much of a good film actor Mark Harmon is, and here he’s excellent as the seemingly good-natured, yet devilishly shady Tommy. Priesler and Graves’ script is prone to the occasional cliché, but it’s impossible not to get drawn in to the films addictively twisting narrative, while at the same time wincing at the brutality of a very satisfying ending.
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DEAD ON (1994; Ralph Hemecker)
“Have you ever seen Strangers on a Train?” asks a scheming Erin (Shari Shattuck) to a complicit Ted (Matt McCoy), while they hatch the idea of a tit-for-tat scheme to murder each other’s spouses.

Mr. Hitchcock has a lot to answer for in the direct-to-video world of the nineties, but as imitations go, then Ralph Hemecker’s film rightfully sits among the best of the seductive thrillers that defined the video stores of the decade.

Hemecker began his career creating title sequences, with TV crime-drama Silk Stalkings among his notable early work. It’s here that he caught the attention of the series’ producer Stu Segall who swiftly enlisted the young filmmaker for the project that turned out to be the sole screenplay of April Wayne, a bit-part actress who had risen to prominence as a model for Swimsuit International in the eighties.

Despite the appearance of the sultry Shattuck, who in ’94 was fresh from a leading role in Jim Wynorski’s Point of Seduction: Body Chemistry III, the eroticism comes across as both seldom and sporadic. Such subtlety serves the script well, giving room to the narrative and enabling you to appreciate what is at times a genuinely thrilling feature.
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THE DISAPPEARANCE OF CHRISTINA (1993; Karen Arthur)
Both director Karen Arthur and screenwriter Camille Thomasson shared a similar level of success and prolificacy within the TV movie business, but it’s unlikely they did anything as good as The Disappearance of Christina.

Joe (John Stamos) is obsessed with his job and has very little time for his wife Christina (Claire Yarlett), resulting in the knock-on effect of a strained relationship. However, with the opportunity of a sailing trip with their friends Lily (Kim Delaney) and Michael (Robert Carradine), they dutifully pack their bags and head for ocean, unaware that Christina won’t make it back alive.

David Frank’s sultry, yet mischievous opening score sets the tone perfectly for this neo-noir, though with films like Call Me (1988) and Poison Ivy (1992) under his belt he’s perfectly suited to the job. Stamos fills the brash, fiery nature of Joe very well, although it’s Delaney who really shines here, with Arthur having written Lily as such a nuanced character with a fascinating personality.

There’s red herrings aplenty, blended with the occasional hallucination, and although the eventual reveal may not be accompanied with a sharp intake of breath, it should nevertheless manage to raise a satisfying grin.
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THE FINISHING TOUCH (1992; Fred Gallo)
Whenever the stars decided to align above Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures, they were capable of putting out DTV movies that sit comfortably among the best DTV’ers of the decade, and The Finishing Touch is one such endeavour.

Sam Stone (an excellent Michael Nader) is investigating a series of murders that have enveloped the local nightclub scene. However, with his ex-wife hell-bent on going undercover to expose the killer, Stone finds himself faced with the headache of protecting her and preventing the next victim from being killed.

A bonafide Corman protégé, Fred Gallo debuted with the cheerfully cheap Alien homage Dead Space (1991), while leading the line of his sophomore piece is a script by Anthony L. Greene that really pops with wise-cracks and sassy one-liners. Familiar faces like Clark Johnson and Ted Raimi add to the sense of comfort viewing here, although it’s the presence of Arnold Vosloo as Mikael Gant, an artist obsessed with images of sex, who really lights up the screen with a flawless British accent that intensifies his creep factor.
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THE SITTER (1991; Rick Berger)
Charlotte Armstrong was a well-published American author and recipient of an Edgar Award for her novel A Dram of Poison. No stranger to her work being adapted for the screen, her novel Charlotte was originally turned into a screenplay by Daniel Taradash for the fabulous noir, Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), with Marilyn Monroe and Richard Widmark. Four decades on, filmmaker Rick Berger went back to Armstrong’s book for The Sitter, adapting it into a TV movie for the Fox Network.

Slotting perfectly into the psycho-of-the-week template that dominated the early nineties, Nell (Kim Myers) is a troubled girl who fortuitously gets the opportunity to babysit the cherubic daughter of an out-of-town couple. Ruth (Susanne Reed) has travelled with her husband Dennis (James McDonnell) to catch his speech at a conference, but after her sister wails on child-minding duty, the pair are desperate for someone to mind little Melissa (Kimberly Cullum), but little do they know that the softly spoken young woman they’ve been recommended is prone to bouts if frightening mental instability.

Myers may forever be recognised as Lisa Webber from A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (1985), but The Sitter eradicates that immediately with her portraying the dowdy, old movie obsessed schizophrenic with pitch-perfect menace. Brett Cullen pops up halfway through as a polished insurance guy who regrettably gets involved in Nell’s mania, while character actor Eugene Roche puts in a great performance as her put-upon Uncle Carl, who regrettably recommended her for babysitting in the first place.

MIDNIGHT RIDE (1990; Bob Bralver)
Lara (Gersak) is desperate to escape from the clutches of her possessive husband Lawson (Dudikoff), so one night she speeds off with the intention of heading cross-country and getting a divorce. Acquiring a hitchhiker for company (Hamill), he initially seems genial, but will soon become her worst nightmare as Lara is forced to accept that the man she’s running from is the only person that can save her.

Stuntman extraordinaire Bob Bralver (Roadhouse (1989), Darkman (1990)) holds the megaphone on this, his sophomore feature after the horror movie Rush Week (1988). It’s the producer that will ring most bells though, as it’s none other than Egyptian schlock-meister Ovidio G. Assonitis. Although he may have given us the drecktastic Tentacles (1977) and The Visitor (1979), this Cannon production actually comes highly recommended. The ride it takes along the coattails of The Hitcher (1986) is plain to see, but thanks to a deliciously against-type performance from Mark Hamill, who excels in the psycho-hitcher role, Midnight Ride stands as one of the best DTV’ers of 1990.
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INVASION FORCE (1990; David A. Prior)
Is this the New Nightmare (1994) of action movies? It’s certainly comparable, as we join the set of a low budget action movie being made for AIP (the actual production company of Invasion Force). The shoot is already in chaos due to a tight budget, a tempestuous British producer (David Marriott), and an egotistical lead (David ‘Shark’ Fralick). However, when a disgruntled Special Forces Officer (Lynch) and his heavily armed squadron of soldiers parachute in, with the intention of storming the nearby city, it’s up to this motley film crew to use all their guile and ingenuity to halt this invasion of rebels.

The most remarkable thing about the six features that Prior made in 1990 is their originality coupled with an absence of repetition. In an era defined by cookie cutter action movies at the behest of Video Industry, the filmmaker was always able to deliver a unique vision. Granted, Invasion Force is markedly flawed. The first couple of reels dawdle somewhat, while the whole piece never quite lives up to the ambitious nature of the pitch, but with a canny ending and a likeable ensemble of characters, it ranks highly in the auteurs cannon. Check out his brief cameo during the final shot, as the director yelling “Cut!”
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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Film Discoveries of 2018 - Jack Criddle

Jack Criddle is a filmmaker, radio host, and cat guy from the wilds of Western Massachusetts. His show, Play Morricone For Me (www.mixcloud.com/playmorriconeforme), goes out over WJJW 91.1 FM in North Adams, playing all the best in film soundtracks from high art to low schlock. He may sometimes be seen working in the box office of Images Cinema, Williamstown's non-profit independent movie house, and the rest of the time can be found on Twitter at @PlayMorriconeFM.

THE LEMON DROP KID (1951, Sidney Lanfield & Frank Tashlin)
Christmastime comedy-caper film adapted from a Damon Runyon (GUYS AND DOLLS) short story. Bob Hope is the titular kid, a racetrack hustler who owes money to a big-time gangster. He runs a convoluted fake charity scheme to save his neck, passing off said gangster's closed-down casino as the Nellie Thursday Home for Old Dolls, whilst sending a small army of petty crooks out to New York's streets as Santy Claus-impersonating bell-ringers. THE GRAPES OF WRATH'S Jane Darwell, 'I Love Lucy's William Frawley,' and Tor Johnson round out a game supporting cast. This film's got just enough bite to please folks who don't like their holiday viewing to get too saccharine and treacly. It also introduced the song "Silver Bells," which hope sings with co-lead Marilyn Maxwell.
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ENTER THE FAT DRAGON (1978, Sammo Hung)
This garage sale VHS find turned out to be a real winner. Sammo Hung directs and stars here as a Bruce Lee-idolizing, provincial bumpkin sent to Hong Kong to work at his uncle's noodle shop. He gets into all manner of shenanigans after besting a group of local hoodlums in hand-to-hand combat. The film has a good-naturedly loose, shaggy-dog quality as one misadventure follows another, including a very funny bit of business in which Hung decimates the set of a Brucesploitation picture.
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DRACULA'S DAUGHTER (1936, Lambert Hillyer)
One enormously pleasurable exercise that my fiancee and I embarked on this year was watching and/or rewatching the classic Universal monster movies in chronological order. I had seen a good chunk of them over the years, but one of the missing holes I filled in was this direct sequel to the first DRACULA, which I found not only to be slightly superior to its predecessor, but maybe the best in the canon not directed by James Whale. It's a moody, lyrical piece - one of the earliest films made about a reluctant vampire seeking a cure for their condition - anchored by an otherworldly performance by the sensuously severe Gloria Holden.
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GODS AND MONSTERS (1998, Bill Condon)
My Universal Monster viewing binge also caused me to remedy the fact that I had never seen Bill Condon's excellent cinematic portrait of James Whale in his twilight years, as masterfully played by Ian McKellen. Having suffered a stroke, a retired Whale lives with the memories of his war service, his filmmaking career, and his open-secret life as an gay man in early Hollywood, eventually striking up a difficult-at-first friendship with his (fictionalized) homophobic gardener, Brendan Fraser. It's at once a loving tribute to horror cinema, brilliant depiction of a troubled genius, and a film I think continues to resonate in the #MeToo era and throughout the continued struggle of LGBTQ civil rights - as well as a good example of how a biopic may sometimes play fast and loose with the 'facts' in order to get to the Truth.
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RIDING SHOTGUN (1954, Andre de Toth)
In this tension-filled Warner Bros. programmer, Randolph Scott works as a stagecoach shotgun guard as an excuse to roam the country, searching for the bandit gang who killed his family. A hasty attempt to go after the gang leaves him captured and left for dead in the desert, but worse, upon making his way back to town, mistaken for being in with the bandits by the townsfolk. Scott once again plays his Boetticheresque 'good man trying to bring about justice without losing his soul,' de Toth's focus here is on the mob mentality amongst the townsfolk, whose suspicions and rush to judgement create an even greater obstacle for Scott than the killers he's sworn revenge against. It's a very good 'social' western, with a fine supporting part from a baby-faced but still sufficiently leathery and imposing Charles Bronson.
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THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T (1953, Roy Rowland)
I don't have an excuse for not getting to this well-loved, bizarro cult item until now, but I'm incredibly glad I finally crossed it off my shame list this year. It was notably the only live-action film that Theodore "Dr. Seuss" Geisel had a hand in during his lifetime, and he reportedly hated the results - a totally gonzo fantasia in which a boy imagines his music teacher kidnapping 500 boys to play at his giant piano in a fortress that resembles a cross between DR. CALIGARI and 'Green Eggs and Ham.' Hans Conried, perhaps best known as the voice of Disney's Captain Hook, plays the campy, megalomaniacal Dr. Terwillicker as essentially a live-action version of the former. One can easily imagine a prepubescent Tim Burton sitting alone in a theater, soaking up inspiration from this film, while his peers were outside playing baseball.
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CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 (1962, Agnes Varda)
Another list-of-shame entry I got to cross off, and I'm happy I waited until I had a chance to see it in the theater. Images Cinema showed this, and three other Agnes Varda films, in conjuncture with the Clark Art Institute's Women Artists in Paris exhibit. Chronicling the two hours that go by as a pop singer waits for the results of a biopsy, this is one of those films in which, not much happens, but meanwhile *everything* happens. Cleo ponders life and death as they each related to selfishness and selflessness (miles away, the Algerian war rages) art and cinema (there's a lovely, meta, silent film-within-a-film featuring fellow New Waver Jean-Luc Godard.) Michel Legrand's supporting turn as 'Bob le pianiste' may be added to the sadly short list (it might just be him and Danny Elfman in FORBIDDEN ZONE) of great performances by film composers in films they also scored.
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DEF BY TEMPTATION (1990, James Bond III)
A Troma-distributed passion-project from the (awesomely named) James Bond III. Bond started his career as a child actor, and recruited much of both the on and off camera talent on this picture from the folks he met working on Spike Lee's SCHOOL DAZE, including Bill Nunn, Kadeem Hardison, Samuel L. Jackson, and cinematographer Ernest R. Dickerson. Bond's naive but well-meaning divinity student Joel travels from the rural South to New York City to visit a childhood friend, and gets into the crosshairs of a vampiric demon posing as a beautiful call girl. Bond's screenplay's themes of religious faith challenged make for a perfect marriage with the cinematography of admitted Euro-horror devotee Dickerson, who create some wonderful nightmare-logic alchemy here.
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HAIKU TUNNEL (2001, Jacob and Josh Kornbluth)
A delightfully strange and very funny early-oughts indie from comedic monologist and San Francisco Bay-area cult icon Josh Kornbluth, about a longtime office temp worker who falls down something of an existential rabbit hole when he's brought on as a 'perm' (permanent) office assistant at a large tax law office. It's a little Kafkaesque dread, a little Melville's 'Bartleby' and bit like other office-set comedies like OFFICE SPACE and the like, but it's mostly wholly its own animal - Kornbluth's surreal and poker-faced depiction of corporate culture really makes for comedy gold.
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