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Monday, December 5, 2016

My Favorite Film Discoveries of 2016

It's my favorite time of year yet again! No, not Christmas, but rather the time of year when I run my "Film Discoveries" series here at RPS. It's a delightful time that I anticipate with great joy and a time that I myself have been keeping track of my viewings all year for! Stay tuned for more lists that will hopefully add to your watchlist for 2017!
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RIFF-RAFF (1947; Ted Tetzlaff)
From its excellent (and stylish) six-minute, wordless opening - RIFF-RAFF is a movie that lets you know you are in good hands. The opening its is a really neat little short film unto itself that sets up the proceedings nicely. It deals with a tiny group of people prepping to board a small private flight from an eerie deserted hangar during a thunderstorm downpour. It's really just about exchanged looks, glances mostly, between the seven or eight characters in the opening. It is a simply lovely piece of filmmaking and I've said this before, but movies don't bother much with opening sequences anymore. You do see the occasional well thought out introduction to a film, (the latest MISSION IMPOSSIBLE film comes to mind) but it's mostly a thing that directors rush through to get the movie going. I really do think that your movie's opening is really like the front room of someone's house. It can give you an accurate indication of who lives there. When people take time to craft a proper opening sequence it both takes advantage of the cinematic medium and gently lays a foundation for the story you are about to see unfold. Anyway, RIFF-RAFF is a really good little Noir. Pat O'Brien plays Dan Hammer (seriously). He's a private dick of sorts and he has Panama wired. He knows everyone there and need only scribble onto a business card to call in any number of favors he seems to have at his disposal. His town is invaded by oil-hungry low-lifes who will do anything to get their hands on a map to a large group of unregistered claims. A map - that's right. Like something out of Scooby-Doo, but I love it. It's kind of like a mini-MALTESE FALCON or something though. Dan Hammer is a bit more of a grafter than Sam Spade, but he's just as charismatic. And there's a dame of course, there almost always is. Thankfully she's played to charming perfection by Anne Jeffreys. This is easily my favorite Pat O'Brien role. I like him as an actor, but I've not been able to connect with a lot of his second fiddle performances. Here he really owns the Hammer character and makes him one of the more memorable on-screen private eyes in movies. He even wears a pimp hat. Few characters like this have pulled off a pimp hat, but somehow he does it. 
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TIN CUP (1996; Ron Shelton)
I waited far far too long to watch this film. When I was in my video store heyday in college, this movie was newly released on VHS. At the time, I found the cover art so repellent and so representative of garbage Hollywood romcom product that it truly kept Me away from the film like the plague. Eventually, I just lost track of it. Even after I read a great article wherein Ron Shelton totally redeemed himself (not that he needed to) by calling out FAT CITY as one of his favorite unsung sports movies. I saw FAT CITY for the first time based on that recommendation and I am forever in his debt because of that. So I should have gotten around to TIN CUP sooner than 2016, but I must give credit to some of the kind contributors to my "Underrated '96" series as they re-ignited my interest and in glad they did. Shelton has a really interesting machismo sensibility that skews a bit towards Hawks and John Ford, but with a bit more humor. Obviously, he's a sports movie guy and for my money he makes some of the best in the genre. What's great about the extra added humor that he brings is that it often comes from character and humiliation as to really help create one hell of an underdog to root for. Hats off to Costner as he can surely play one of the best loser underachievers I've seen put to film. He and Cheech Marin have a delightful chemistry as well and Don Johnson is a nemesis for the ages. Oh, did I mention this is a golf movie? Well I kinda hate golf and that said this movie absolutely wowed me. Rene Russo also has an incredibly "wowing" effect and she is positively radiant and adorable here. Truly one of the great actresses of the last quarter century.
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TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949; Byron Haskin)
I've said many times that I very much enjoy my film noir dripping with fatalism. I find the genre is best served with the mounting tension of withheld secrets that may come to light and ruin things for one of our main characters. This is a little odd in that I can be a bit of an anxious person myself, so one might think that such story lines would cause great distress in my fragile mind. Not the case though and I can tell you the exact moment this movie really hooked me. There's a point where Lizabeth Scott hugs her husband (the great Arthur Kennedy) after not telling him the whole truth and we can see in her face the concern of what may happen as a result. You see the plot hinges on a bag of loose cash that ends up mistakenly in the car of a married couple (Scott and Kennedy) and what the money does to their marriage. Once the money is in the picture, it changes things. The couple bickers about whether to turn it over to the police, but she eventually convinces him to stash it in a locker at  a local train station for a short while while they think about what they want to do with it. Enter the goon (Dan Duryea). Where large amounts of money in bags are concerned, there's usually a goon or two looking for it.This goon is charming, but also convincingly menacing and prone to entering the couple's apartment unannounced and when the wife is home alone. One thing leads to another and it becomes unclear who is playing who and if money corrupts absolutely. It's got all the stuff of a good noir. Sex, money, crime and general dishonesty. Dan Duryea is right in his proper wheelhouse playing a charismatic and fast talking hoodlum and Lizabeth Scott has the delightful ability to play innocent and turn on a dime to deceitful and scheming. She's really amazing and this movie showcases that well. Even though I had heard of this one, it was a new noir viewing for me and one that I enjoyed very much. Lots of "twists and turns" as they say and a solid ending. Lots of films like to lay claim to some surprising narrative curves, but this movie truly went places that I didn't totally expect (as well as some that I did - whilst going further than usual).
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THE NOOSE HANGS HIGH (1948; Charles Barton)
Under-seen but hilarious Abbott & Costello flick with plenty of good gags and verbal back and forths crammed into its short running time. This was a recommend I took from my friend CahCat's discoveries from last year. Great stuff!
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BULLDOG DRUMMOND STRIKES BACK (1934; Roy Del Ruth)
Delightful little comedic mystery with Ronald Coleman playing the titular Drummond. He finds a body, then it disappears and so does everyone he brings back to his place. Warner Oland plays the villain and he does a nice job of it. Only fault of the film is that it reveals a bit to early what the mcguffin is and whats going on. Still a lot of fun though. Coleman is incredibly charming and Loretta Young is her usual gorgeous self.
Watch it here:

THE LITTLEST HOBO (1958; Charles R. Rondeau)
I'm kind of a sucker for dog movies and I love discovering new ones. Warner Archive helped me find a couple of my favorites in GOODBYE, MY LADY and IT'S A DOG'S LIFE. THE LITTLEST HOBO basically plays like a wonderful little silent movie, with a bits of human dialogue here and there. This pooch tale centers around a meandering German Shepherd who arrives in Los Angeles by train and gets into various adventures. He ends up saving a little lamb from a slaughterhouse, rescuing other dogs from the dogcatcher, and even helping a blind man across the street. This film is highlighted by an amazing canine performance. I cannot imagine how you train a dog to not only drag a lamb on a rope leash but to also swim with that lamb. It's really remarkable stuff.
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JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL (1978; Michael Nankin/David Wechter)
Adorable low-budget musical short (39 mins) from the directors of MIDNIGHT MADNESS (and it certainly helped them get the gig directing for Disney). Reminds me of FAME meets ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. Has a really great do-it-yourself energy about it. Features a young Paula Adbul singing not too well.
Buy it Here:
BOUND FOR GLORY (1976; Hal Ashby)
Not sure why I avoided this epic Woody Guthrie biopic from Hal Ashby so long. Perhaps I thought it'd be too preachy. It's not that at all though. What it is is beautifully photographed by the great Haskell Wexler and amazingly acted by David Carradine. The dust bowl was never captured quite like this and it is utterly unforgettable. Twilight Time put out a great Blu-ray this year and you can snag it from them here:
Amusing farce featuring a foursome of goofball inhabitants of an apartment building who decide to become fur thieves for charity. Gave me a new appreciation for Terry-Thomas and Billie Whitelaw. This one showed also up on Cahcat's discoveries list last year and I thank her for it.
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LAST MAN STANDING (1996; Walter Hill)
For as big a Walter Hill fan as I am, it's a bit shameful that I hadn't gotten around to this one fully till this year. I remember when it came out on VHS and my video store got a bunch of copies for our new release wall. I must have been snobbish or suffering from Bruce Willis fatigue, because it just didn't look good to me. I was quite wrong in that it gives just what you'd like from a Walter Hill movie and is made even more fun by the fact that it is using Kurosawa's YOJIMBO as a template (as Sergio Leone did with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS). That template works well in the wild quasi-western and quasi-gangster universe that Hill creates. It's a lovely bit of stylish action fun. There's a nice double feature Blu-ray with this film and THE LAST BOY SCOUT that I highly recommend for your 90s action fix:
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THE PASSAGE (1979; J. Lee Thompson)
I think it was via Quentin Tarantino that the "Guys On a Mission" movie was first categorized for me. I had seen a bunch of the films and almost always enjoyed them, but had never tied them altogether for some silly reason. There are so many good films in this little niche genre, but Tarantino first spike if it in reference to WHERE EAGLES DARE (which is still one of my favorites). As many as there are, at this point I think I've seen most of the good ones. THE PASSAGE was one I had overlooked, despite a stellar cast (Anthony Quinn, Malcolm McDowell, James Mason, Kay Lenz AND Christopher Lee) and it being helmed by veteran director J. Lee Thompson (who also did the Guys on a Mission Classic THE GUNS OF NAVARONE among many others). The basics of this story are that Quinn has been hired to help a family escape the Germans and get through the Pyrenees.
First off, Malcolm McDowell steals the show with his gleefully sadistic performance as one of the more evil Nazis villains in cinema. He has that way of being charming and smirky right up to the point of torture that is both engaging and infuriating. Not that he's lost a step these days, but the 1970s was his decade and he devours this role with enthusiasm. Almost makes you forget about his accent. Secondly, Anthony Quinn is kind of a badass in this flick. He was about sixty-four at the time and he kills the crap out of a bunch of folks in this crazy frenzied way. You see, he understands the level of danger they he and the family he is trying to get across the mountains are in, so he knows they can't mess around. He's like a geriatric terminator in this movie. In fact, he and Malcolm McDowell are like dueling terminators in this film. Neither one will stop until they achieve their objective. McDowell really keeps coming through any difficulties or obstacles. It does make for some nice suspense and a solid climax. 
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DIARY OF A MADMAN (1963; Reginald Le Borg)
Based on a story by Guy de Mauoassant, this dark romantic drama delves into the supernatural. Price plays a man who finds himself slowly possessed by a ghost of sorts that drives him to kill against his will. During the moments he is being "taken over" a slit of green light appears around his eyes and he goes into a trance like state. After he commits the murders, he is left with no memory of what has transpired. When he unknowingly falls for another man's wife, things become complicated between them and the ghost eventually enters the mix. This is a "flashback movie" in that it is really told through the diary of Vincent Price's character after his funeral. It's an intriguing little film and feels like a very low-key Twilight Zone episode at feature length.
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YOU'LL LIKE MY MOTHER (1972; Lamont Johnson)
Patty Duke plays a woman who is pregnant with the child of her recently deceased husband who makes a pilgrimage from Los Angeles to the icy tundra of Minnesota to meet her spouse's mother for the first time. The meeting goes poorly as the mother is one of the coldest humans ever and wants nothing to do with Patty, but a blizzard forces her to stay in the dank mansion for a few days as she begins to discover that things are very much not right with her late husband's family. Nice suspense that builds very slowly to a solid climax.
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PICTURE PERFECT (1997; Glenn Gordon Caron)
I'm a ridiculous goof for getting caught up in this one, which offers something in the ballpark of CAN'T BUY ME LOVE, but is a mixed up story in a similar vein. Jennifer Anniston has always charmed me in her comedic roles and I never thought that Jay Mohr would hook me emotionally as well as he does in this one. Your mileage may vary, but I was absolutely enchanted by it.
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OUT TO SEA (1997; Martha Coolidge)
Beyond the obvious draw of Lemmon and Matthau, this movie has Donald O'Connor, Barney Miller and Hasselhoff's boss from KNIGHT RIDER. Plus a fake phone call from Donald Trump. Oh and Brent Spiner for the STAR TREK nerds. Also - the ladies: Dyan Cannon, Rue McLanahan & Elaine Stritch (watching PREDATOR on TV). Aaaand it's from the director of VALLEY GIRL! Plus - I love the cruise ship milieu and it makes me think this would make a nice double with THE IMPOSTORS (which is one of my all-time favorites).
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THE WHOOPEE BOYS (1986; John Byrum)
How this raunchy 80s comedy passed me by all these years is beyond me, but it is just the kind of low-brow, un-PC-fest that I used to like very much as a kid and still enjoy to this day. Now I've been a Michael O'Keefe fan since CADDYSHACK, but I've always liked him as more of a smart-ass than he was in that movie. He can play charismatic, strange and funny along the lines of Chevy Chase if given the opportunity. And with somebody goofy like Paul Rodriguez to play off of, he's even better. Especially when Rodriguez plays an boorish brute with absolutely no filter whatsoever (almost aggressively so at times). O'Keefe and Rodriguez make a nice duo of slobs to take on the snobs in this one and having Eddie Deezen, Marsha Warfield and Denholm Elliott to back them up is pretty fantastic. From John Byrum, the director of INSERTS.
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CROSS MY HEART (1987; Armyan Bernstein)
A rather frank and awkward portrait of sex and dating in the 1980s. It's mostly just Martin Short and the lovely Annette O'Toole themselves - out on their third date. Short's character trying desperately to impress her - going so far as to borrow a posh apartment and car from his pal Paul Reiser. Feels real in many ways that romantic comedies from this period don't. The whole sense of not trying to offend your date and still trying to be honest is portrayed in a way that I found most endearing.
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TWO GUYS FROM MILWAUKEE (1946; David Butler)
A Balkan prince (Dennis Morgan) ditches out on his handlers whilst in New York City to try to find a more "authentic" experience. He quickly befriends a local cabbie (Jack Carson) who gets him authentically drunk on boilermakers whilst enjoying the local cuisine (hamburgers). The prince stays at the cabbie's place and things blow-up a bit as he is declared missing/kidnapped in the city and he finds himself falling for the cabbie's girl. I.A.L. ("Izzy) Diamond helps with the script on this lovely little twist on a "Prince and the Pauper" kinda tale. The movie has the feel of a 2nd tier (but still quite enjoyable) Billy Wilder farce and certainly Diamond (who worked with Billy Wilder a lot) had something to do with that. It also features a moment which oddly plays into the idea of "going viral" and fame brought about by YouTube and so forth. Of course this moment deals with radio as that was the broadcast medium of the time, but I found it an interesting commentary on the here and now.
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SONNY BOY (1989; Robert Martin Carroll)
In this day and age of pre-fabricated "cult" cinema, where we see films declared "instant cult classics" almost before we've even seen them, it's sometimes nice to take a step back and get re-aquatinted with what cult movies used to be. They were (and are) fringe cinema from directors like John Waters, David Lynch (I'm talking ERASERHEAD here), Jodorowsky and others. That's not to exclude other movies that have developed rabid loyal followings, but those movies don't resonate in the same way that the old cult movies did. Something like BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA might be an example. It's an amazing film and a unique genre mashup and I personally love it, but it's different than the often low-budget fringe stuff I'm talking about. The cult movies I'm talking about are the kind of thing they make you say, "Well, you certainly don't see that every day." SONNY BOY is one of those cult movies. It was a VHS tape that I used to see alongside things like PINK FLAMINGOS, LIQUID SKY and THE FORBIDDEN ZONE in the old video store cult sections I used to run across in my home town. Renting one of those movies was a declaration that you wanted to watch something "different" that particular evening. By different, some folks might say "just plain weird" and they might be right, but there was no denying that once you had watched one of those movies, it would probably stick with you. Director Robert Martin Carroll said he was going for a Frankenstein story that was somewhere between A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and THE ELEPHANT MAN. That's an interesting take on things and I can kind of see those elements in the film a bit. You can maybe see a little dash of Peckinpah mixed in there too. All of those cult film ingredients in a mixing pot together do end up resulting in another very unique concoction. It is certainly strange and a bit bleak, but needs to be seen if you are a fan of fringe cinema.
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DEAL OF THE CENTURY (1983; William Friedkin)
I've heard it said that Friedkin may not be the biggest fan of this one and I'm not sure if that speaks to the films poor reception or his experiences working on it, but I found some things to like about it myself. Chevy Chase plays Eddie Muntz, a small-timer in the arms dealing field who has a loyal partner in Ray Kasternak (Gregory Hines). Muntz will sell guns, grenades and flamethrowers to any nickel and dime revolutionary outfit and doesn't exactly have a lot of scruples all around. Through an odd turn of circumstance, he finds himself given the opportunity to broker a huge weapons deal involving an extremely powerful drone plane known as "The Peacemaker" to the country of San Miguel. Though Chevy was two years off from starring in his iconic role as FLETCH, he shows small hints of what he would later bring to that character via Eddie Muntz here. Muntz is a much darker dude than Fletch and Chase seems to be coasting a little bit for his performance here, but his charisma still shines through a bit and amidst an intriguing satirical look at the business of weapons trade and the kind of folks who involve themselves in it. Along the way he crosses paths with a pre-GHOSTBUSTERS/post-ALIEN Sigourney Weaver, Vince Edwards and Wallace Shawn. Gregory Hines is solid as usual. Could be doubled with WAR DOGS for interesting effect.
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Honorable Mentions:
THE ART OF GETTING BY (2011; Gavin Wiesen)
This film is much more recent than I typically like to include on my lists, but it struck me that it has been quite neglected in the five short years since its release. Now it's very much another "your mileage may vary" title, but I found it emotionally engaging and charming. Freddie Highmore, who many have gotten to know as the young Norman Bates in the BATES MOTEL TV series is an interesting, unconventional and angsty lead and his interactions with his crush (played by Emma Roberts) have a certain unstable minded authenticity to them that I don't feel like I've seen portrayed all that much. Also, the soundtrack - though very much of it's time in terms of the band that are represented - adds a nice layer to the whole thing that I liked.
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WHAT'S YOUR NUMBER? (2011; Mark Mylod)
Another very recent, but quite overlooked and also quite enjoyable romcom -  this one with Anna Faris and Chris Evans as the leads. Faris plays a girl who has something of a mid-life crisis when she realizes that the number of men she's slept with is almost double the national average. In an attempt to not increase "her number", she decides to go back through her exes and see if any of them may have grown better with age. She enlists the help of her hunky man-whore neighbor (Evans) to track them all down. So it's got a slight HIGH FIDELITY thing going on, and while it is not on the level of that film (or its source novel) - this one is still a heartfelt if predictable tale of love and being true to oneself. Had no knowledge of it at all until I believe I heard Leonard Maltin mention it on his podcast at one point. Glad I checked it out.
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THE LAST MARRIED COUPLE IN AMERICA (1980; Gilbert Cates)
A less funny BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE type movie with a few interesting insights about marriage.Segal and Natalie Wood are great as are Richard Benjamin and Bob Dishy in supporting roles. Also it has Dom Deluise in a scene with a swanky pimp hat, so that's a plus too.
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I'LL NEVER FORGET WHAT'S 'ISNAME (1967; Michael Winner)
Had been meaning to check out this early Michael Winner/Oliver Reed collaboration for many years. Hit me at the perfect time. It's all about a successful advertising man (Reed) who decides to call it quits and go back to his old gig at a small literary journal. There's inherent comedy here, but there's also a good deal of underlying anger that seeps through too. I am a fan of this kind of "dropout" movie and as I get older, I can kind of sympathize with this mindset. Orson Welles has amazing small part as Reed's old boss who likes to hit golf balls from his office across the way into the windows of his main competitor's building to break their windows.
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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Olive Films - COFFEE AND CIGARETTES on Blu-ray

COFFEE AND CIGARETTES (2003; Jim Jarmusch)
Sure, it's a cool thing to open a movie with a thrilling set piece or even something sexy, but sometimes simple is better. I was immediately reminded of the utter delight I take from watching Jim Jarmusch movies when I smiled my way through a sublime opening vignette with Roberto Benigni and Steven Wright.
Throughout COFFEE AND CIGARETTES, Jim Jarmusch is constantly cutting to an overhead angle, looking down on the tables with the coffee cups and packs of smokes. It is very reminiscent of a thing that Martin Scorsese does several times in TAXI DRIVER. If I recall from Scorsese's commentary, those shots had something to do with showing the ritual of certain situations. I get a similar sense from Jarmusch here. It seems like he's into showing ritual too and how something as simple as these two things in combination with a little conversation can be the stuff of life. Even awkward chats like the one between music icons Tom Waits and Iggy Pop are absolutely mesmerizing. Though the movie came out in 2003, it feels like the old Jarmusch of the 1980s. Not that he's changed his vibe that much in all these years, but the black and white short scenes of this film have that feeling of STRANGER THAN PARADISE and DOWN BY LAW. I remember when I first heard those two films mentioned back when I was working my video store job in college. People started asking for both of them and our store didn't have them - so I had to remedy that. I ended up requesting them from another store and when they showed up, they rented with some decent regularity. They also changed my life in a way because I became obsessed with Jarmusch for several years after seeing those movies. They were a huge influence on my college short films and videos - both stylistically and thematically. At the time, I hadn't seen anything like a Jarmusch movie and they were absolutely captivating in their simplicity and form. 
Whilst watching COFFEE AND CIGARETTES, I couldn't help but think of how it is kind of a eulogy for the old coffee shops and diners that despite not having disappeared completely, have become far less prominent in terms of being places where people go to get a cup of joe and be social. Starbucks has obviously overtaken everything and that's a little sad. The fringe element that Jarmusch seems to most align himself with wouldn't be caught dead in a Starbucks. So this film serves as a pleasant reminder of the "hanging out" nature of caffeine and nicotine. It's really all about hanging out. About being momentarily present in the lives of others even if those interactions turn awkward. I also thought about how there aren't any cell phones in the movie. So much of coffee and socializing now is so intertwined with our devices that there tends to be a lot less face to face time. A lot less looking into the eyes of the person across the table from you and telling stories. Okay, I'm rambling a bit now, but that actually kind of fits with me talking about a film that can be a little affably rambling in its own right. Leave it to Jim Jarmusch to remind me of the straightforward bliss of a warm beverage and conversation with another living breathing person sitting across the wobbly table from you. He also does it with some of the most entertaining people in unusual and unexpected mixtures. Jarmusch has Steve Buscemi with Joie and Cinque Lee, Steve Coogan with Alfred Molina, Bill Murray with The RZA and the GZA and Cate Blanchett among others to demonstrate the divinity of dialogue and discourse between humans. COFFEE AND CIGARETTES is as laid back and pleasurable as its title would imply and might make an interesting entry point for movie fans who want to get into Jarmusch films. The nature of the anthology here makes it fun and easy to sample the Jarmusch state of mind - which is a trip that is absolutely worth taking.
Special Features - This disc features a trailer for the film and an interview with actor Taylor Mead - who recalls working with Jarmusch on the movie.


Buy COFFEE AND CIGARETTES on Blu-ray here:
http://amzn.to/2gxb5qm
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