Rupert Pupkin Speaks

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

84-a-THON - Five Underrated Films From 1984

When my pal Todd Liebenow over at Forgotten Films approached me about being part of this blogathon, I was a bit overwhelmed with where I might go with the idea of celebrating films that came out 30 years ago. What I came up with is a short list of lesser-appreciated films from that year that I felt could still use some recognition. Hope you enjoy!


NOTHING LASTS FOREVER (1984; Tom Schiller)
This is a bit of a cheat, but it is one of the great fantasy comedies of the 1980s that never was. Starring Zach Galligan, and featuring a smorgasboard of comedy giants (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Imogene Coca, Mort Sahl), this little movie was one of those that truly fell through the proverbial cracks. It was actually postponed just before the time that it was to be initially released so has never really been put out, outside of some TV airings and 35mm revival screenings. This film has been written about a lot for lists on my site. I mentioned it briefly way back on my "Favorite Discoveries of 2010" list years ago:http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2011/01/my-50-favorite-films-i-saw-for-1st-time.html
Beyond that though, some real cool folks have seen it and been compelled to write about it including long time friends of Rupert Pupkin Speaks Lars Nilsen and Zack Carlson. They speak pretty well about the film, and I doubt I can really add much, but suffice it to say that you should seek this one out. The last I heard it was potentially being disentangled legally by the folks at Warner Archive (there's a good deal of footage from other things used within it). 



SECRET HONOR (1984; Robert Altman)
Fans of Paul Thomas Anderson are aware that it is no secret that he is a gigantic fan of Robert Altman. It was that fandom that led him to SECRET HONOR, which led him to cast the great Philip Baker Hall in HARD EIGHT (aka SYDNEY). While Baker Hall is not often given a platform to be in a prominent role in films, he is one of the best actors ever. Watch him in HARD EIGHT and you'll understand this. If that film doesn't convince you, check him out in SECRET HONOR to seal the deal. SECRET HONOR is based on a play and takes place basically in one room. It stars just Philip Baker Hall by himself as Richard Nixon and that's it. He rants and raves for 90 minutes and it is mesmerizing.
The wiki synopsis:

"A disgraced Richard Nixon is restlessly pacing in the study at his New Jersey home, in the late 1970s. Armed with a loaded revolver, a bottle of Scotch Whisky and a running tape recorder, while surrounded by closed circuit television cameras, he spends the next 90 minutes recalling, with rage, suspicion, sadness and disappointment, his controversial life and career in a long monologue."


COMFORT AND JOY (1984; Bill Forsyth)
Bill Forsyth is one of the great underrated directors of the 1980s. From his feature debut in 1979 with THAT SINKING FEELING (which recently arrived on Blu-ray across the pond) through GREGORY'S GIRL, LOCAL HERO and BREAKING IN, he established a very unique low-key comedic voice that was based very much in his characters. I first notied him with LOCAL HERO and later became obsessed when I found BREAKING IN (whilst I was working my way through all the films based on John Sayles' screenplays). COMFORT AND JOY is one of his best. It is basically the story of an everyman type who gets caught up in an ongoing war between two Italian families who both own and operate ice cream vans in Glasgow. Sound silly? It's awesome and hilarious. Quentin Tarantino is a self-proclaimed fan of this as well:

CHOOSE ME (1984; Alan Rudolph)
I was completely unaware of Alan Rudolph until I came across this film in one of Danny Peary's Cult Movies books. I was just starting to become aware of Robert Altman's stock company of actors and so Keith Carradine was a relatively new discovery to me as well. Once I saw the film it made me think of Altman of course and it was easy to see how Rudolph's working relationship with Altman may have influenced him as a filmmaker. CHOOSE ME is very much one of those stories of a bunch of characters who end up being interconnected. It's kind of AFTER HOURS meets Altman, soaked in the music and neon of the 1980s. The cast is very strong and includes the aforementioned Carradine, Genevieve Bujold, Lesley Ann Warren, Rae Dawn Chong and John Larroquette.


KIDCO (1984; Ronald F. Maxwell)
We all remember Scott Schwartz from THE TOY and a CHRISTMAS STORY, but oft overlooked is his excellent turn in KIDCO, a fun story about a youngster entrepreneur who builds a small empire selling manure. Schwartz was always good at the precocious kid role and it works quite well for him here. I will always remember this film for introducing my good friend and I to the word "bazongas" which has been an inside joke with us ever since.


Monday, August 25, 2014

Warner Archive Grab TV Bag - CHILDRENS HOSPITAL Season Five

When I stop to think about it, I get a little depressed about the state of the "spoof" comedy and where it stands in popular culture today. The Zuckers/Abrahams crew still occasionally trots something out, but it's never as epic as it was in their heyday. So what we're left with is the mantle of the SCARY MOVIE series and its imitators. These films are the worst possible dreck imaginable and have little to no cleverness to offer in their attempts at "comedy". I used to say to myself, "What happened to the AIRPLANE!s, NAKED GUNs and TOP SECRETs of the world?". And then I discovered CHILDRENS HOSPITAL and realized that that is where the good spoof comedy is these days. Like every other type of quality genre fare, it's gone to television. In the case of CHILDRENS, it went online first and then eventually found it's way to the cult audience it has at the moment. It really is a brilliant, edgy and hilarious program, but that shouldn't be all that surprising when you look at the creative team behind it (as well as the cast). Rob Corddry and David Wain. You'd have me at just those two guys, but throw in folks like Ken Marino, Rob Huebel, Henry Winkler, Megan Mullally, Lake Bell and Erinn Hayes and it's pure comedy gold. This group are an amazing comedic and creative ensemble and what they've come up with is something along the lines of the old POLICE SQUAD TV Show, but in a hospital/medical setting. It's more adventurous and off the wall than that show, but that was something I thought of when I was first watching it.
CHILDRENS HOSPITAL is fearless in that it goes to the most absurd places and completely commits itself. Absurdist comedy is something I just can't get enough of myself so it's always wonderful to see a show that revels in going there all the time. My introduction to the show was a while ago now, but it couldn't have come at a better time. I make a regular practice of watching movies with my son and we had gone through a long running series if comedy films stretching from the Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd through the Marx Brothers and Jerry Lewis. Those all went over really well, but the stuff that got the best response was things like AIRPLANE!  and the NAKED GUN films (as well as the amazing POLICE SQUAD TV show). My son and I were just starting to have to dip into the later-period lesser Zucker/Abrahams output when CHILDRENS HOSPITAL appeared on our radar. It was a perfect natural transition into that show and it was immediately a hit with both of us. My son had never seen THE STATE or STELLA, but I think he'd like them and I could feel the offbeat, awkward sensibilities of those shows creeping into the mix on this one. 
I love to think that CHILDRENS HOSPITAL is continuing the tradition of great spoof comedy started so long ago, but with an oddball bent on a consistently random ( if that makes sense) comic reality. David Wain, Rob Corddry and the creative team behind the show (several of the actors take turns directing episodes too) have this hyper-awareness of genre conventions and cliches that they use to deftly ride the satirical/dramatic line. An awareness in not only the conventions of medical dramas, but of countless other types of shows or movies that they transpose onto the Childrens Hospital staff. One of the biggest and most enjoyable things about the show is that you literally have no idea where it'll go from episode to episode. One will be an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, while another episode is immersed in a scifi thriller plot. Another component that makes the show work is it's speed. No joke or comedic premise for a scene is played too long and each episode moves along at a remarkable clip. The amount of throwaway jokes we found ourselves laughing at were innumerable. It's just a remarkable blend of great comic writer, commuted comic actors and an off-center sensibility that make CHILDRENS HOSPITAL one of the most hilarious and unique shows on TV right now. It is not to be missed if you're a big comedy fan. Season Five features a plethura of groovy cameos from the likes of Key & Peele, Nick Offerman, Weird Al Yankovic, and Jon Hamm. WIlliam Atherton (REAL GENIUS, GHOSTBUSTERS) makes a quick but welcome appearance in one episode!

Here is a neat audio interview that Warner Archive did with Rob Corddry right around the time that CHILDRENS HOSPITAL Season Four hit DVD:
http://warnerarchive.tumblr.com/post/52240474500/childrens-hospitals-rob-corddry
Here is another great interview with show executive porducer David Wain on Jeff Goldsmith's The Q&A Podcast:





Sunday, August 24, 2014

Scream Factory - THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE and PUMPKINHEAD on Blu-ray

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973; John Hough)
Richard Matheson is one of my favorite writers of all time. His I AM LEGEND is one of the greatest pieces of fiction every put to paper. Matheson is also the screenwriter of THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE which is based on his own novel. This novel was called "one of the most brain-freezingly frightening haunted house novels of the 20th century" by the great Stephen King, who was a gigantic fan of Matheson and often cited him as one of the greatest influences on him as a writer. Matheson was responsible for many great stories over the years and many of them were made into movies and TV shows with good reason. Though the material he wrote was not explicitly "R-rated", I have sometimes felt he could have benefitted from film adaptations that were. There were not many of them though and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is a good example of what his material can do even without an R-rating (it was rated PG). I certainly enjoy a good haunted house film now and again, but few of them truly freak me out. There are only four that have left a truly lasting impression on me. They are THE HAUNTING ('63), THE INNOCENTS, THE UNINVITED and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE. The advantage HELL HOUSE may have over those others is its freedom to be more intense and scary just by virtue of the fact that it came out a little later and was aloud to be more intense. The neat thing that Hough does with HELL HOUSE is that he alludes to a lot of horror without actually showing it. It is a fairly well-known method of scaring people to leave as much to their own imaginations as possible. The human mind has a tendency to fill in the gaps with stuff that is much more terrifying than most filmmakers could ever capture. I've always admired the skill with which certain directors can lead a viewer to believe they saw something or to create a horrifying image merely through the power of suggestion via editing and other filmmaking techniques like sound design. 
As new-agey as it might sound, I have this strange belief in energy that exists out in the world. When I imagine the amazing power behind the life force of a human being, it's hard for me to conceive of it completely ever going away. Sometimes, it would seem a fair assumption that it just "hangs out" in a place. That said, there are also people and places that just seem to have a "bad energy" about them. I know I must sound like a complete hippie here, but suffice it to say that I like the idea of places in movies that are inherently evil. Whether it be because mass murders were committed there or some horrible rituals were performed or whatever it might have been, I am intrigued by the presence of these "evil places" in films. The haunted house in this movie (known as Belasco House) has the reputation of being the "Mount Everest of haunted houses". A physicist (Clive Revill) is called upon to investigate amyhr house and brings his wife and two mediums (Roddy McDowall and Pamela Franklin) along with to aid in the task. It's kinda like a "guys on a mission" movie (or in this case "guys and gals") with a very evil house. That premise alone should intrigue to want to check it out if you haven't. John Hough makes it especially memorable by way of the film's wonderfully creepy atmosphere. Would make a lovely double feature with the previously mentioned THE HAUNTING (1963). Among my favorite British horror films.

Special Features:
This good-looking Scream Factory Blu-ray has a couple nice extras:
--"The Story of Hell House" - (28 mins) A New Interview with Director John Hough wherein he discusses various aspects of the production (lens tricks, handheld camerawork, & working with actors) along with other films that influenced it (Robert Wise's THE HAUNTING being chief among them). He says, "It's not what you see, it's what you don't see...", which is a great philosophy to have in regards to a film like this. 
--the disc also has A new audio commentary with Actress Pamela Franklin. As with most actor commentaries she talks about how she got involved with the film and her scene specific memories throughout. Commentary a touch sparse, but nonetheless interesting.
Here are a few clips from THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE via Scream Factory's Youtube channel:



Short Bonus - Director Interview - I'm a pretty big fan of John Hough as a director. THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE is probably my favorite of his movies, but I am also a really big fan of another of his horror film THE INCUBUS (1982). Hough also did several films for Disney (all of which I like very much) including ESCAPE FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN (1975), RETURN TO WITCH MOUNTAIN (1978) and THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS (1980). I came across this interview with him from 2007 wherein in he touches mostly on his film TWINS OF EVIL, but also touches on some of his other movies and working with actors like Roddy McDowall. He also talks about LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE and how he did his best to leave much to the viewers' imaginations:








PUMPKINHEAD (1988; Stan Winston)
Stan Winston got his start doing special effects mostly for TV and TV-movies in the early to mid 70s and worked his way up to being one of the most revered names in the business. Winston's legacy includes work on films like ALIENS, PREDATOR, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, TERMINATOR (1 & 2), BATMAN RETURNS, A.I., THE MONSTER SQUAD and many more.
PUMPKINHEAD is one of those rarer films that is directed by a special effects master himself. The other FX man turned director I can think of is John Carl Buechler (who directed TROLL, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII and GHOULIES III among others). Stan Winston only directed a few features in his long and prestigious career; PUMPKINHEAD and one called A GNOME NAMED GNORM (which has yet to hit DVD). I know that my immediate impression when I hear that a film is directed by someone from another discipline (special effects in this case of course) is one of trepidation. I guess I've seen enough mediocre films from folks who aren't directors by trade that I've become something of a skeptic. I do realize and wrestle with the idea (and truth) that it is damned hard to get a movie made at all (especially now) and have it be as good or better than the filmmakers had pictured. So when a craftsman like Stan Winston puts himself in the director's chair, oneigjt immediately assume that he may have become obsessed with the special effects side of things on his movie and been less concerned with things like story, acting, and camerawork. I was going to say lighting too, but an FX technician certainly has to be thinking of lighting and how their creations will look on camera. PUMPKINHEAD doesn't really fall prey to those transgressions though. There certainly is an emphasis on the creature, but not at the cost of totally sacrificing story. I think Winston and his collaborators started with an interesting story and were very determined not to make a standard "teenagers getting killed" kind of horror movie. What they ended up making was a fabled meditation on revenge which is pretty unique and memorable (and obviously successful on some level as it spawned a number of straight to video sequels). Winston called himself a "special effects character creator". He did so because he believed he and his crews were creating characters, not just monsters to be photographed. In PUMPKINHEAD, he certainly created a distinct monster that was also character. I feel like that sensibility is missing a bit from movie monster creators today and it saddens me.


Special Features:
This PUMPKINHEAD Blu-ray is one of Scream Factory's special Collector's Editions so it has a solid set of supplements:
--An Audio Commentary with Co-screenwriter Gary Gerani and Creature & FX Creators Tom Woodruff, Jr. and Alec Gillis (moderated by filmmaker Scott Spiegel) - a pretty thorough and fascinating track covering a lot of informative ground.
----"Remembering the Monster Kid - A Tribute to Stan Winston" (49 mins)  featuring new interviews with actors Lance Henriksen and Brian Bremer, special effects artists Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr. and Shannon Shea. All them talk about their first meetings with Stan Winston, their experiences working with him, how he inspired them and the legacy he left behind. They also talk a lot about making PUMPKINHEAD and how Stan Winston saw the material.

--"PUMPKINHEAD UNEARTHED" (1  hr. 4 mins) (now in HD) – a documentary on the making of PUMPKINHEAD featuring interviews with Co-screenwriter Gary Gerani, Producer Billy Blake, actors Lance Henriksen, Cynthia Bain, Brian Bremer, Florence Schauffler, Creature Effects designers Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr. & Shannon Shea, Mechanical Effects designer Richard Landon, and Production Designer Cynthia Charette. As you'd guess from that list of folks, this doc is quite thorough and touches on the germ of the idea that led to the film, some production problems, the nuts and the bolts of design and preparation. Intermingled with the interviews is some vintage video footage of the shooting of the film.


-- a 7 min 'Behind the Scenes' featurette - this consists of costume and makeup design footage.
--"Night of the Demon with Richard Weinman" (17 mins) Producer Weinman runs through the roots and development of PUMPKINHEAD and the machinations of his working relationship with Stan Winston.
-- "The Redemption of Joel with John D'Aquino" (14 mins) actor D'Aquino talks about his character and experiences working on PUMPKINHEAD and his history and inspirations with acting.  
--"The Boy with the Glasses with Matthew Hurley" (15 mins) child actor Hurley recounts his memories of making the film from his point of view at the age he was when shooting.
--"Demonic Toys" Featurette (2 mins) Toy sculptor Jean St. Jean talks about the things he finds memorable about PUMPKINHEADas a film and what went into his process for working on the PUMPKINHEAD figure he designed.


Here are some clips from the Blu-ray via the Scream Factory Youtube Channel:




THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE arrives on Blu-ray from Scream Factory on 8/26, while PUMPKINHEAD releases on 9/9.
http://www.shoutfactory.com/screamfactory

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Kino Lorber Studio Classics - THE UNFORGIVEN and CAST A GIANT SHADOW on Blu-ray

THE UNFORGIVEN (1960; John Huston)
It's kind of remarkable to me how many blind spots I have as far as John Huston's filmography goes considering how much I like his early work. I seem to have gravitated towards the early (1940s) and later (1970s and 80s) parts of his career with some viewings of stuff in the middle, but clearly not enough. A bunch of his films have fallen through the cracks for me, this being one of them. It's rather silly I missed this one considering how big a Burt Lancaster fan I am. I'd certainly heard of it and encountered it many times when poking around online in searches about Clint Eastwood's well regarded film of the same name. 
THE UNFORGIVEN is an interesting companion piece to THE SEARCHERS in a lot of ways. It's not quite as epic in scale as far scope of the time covers, but the racial themes run deeper. It's also a lot more stationary. The racial elements  play a good-sized  part  in the second half of the movie. Basically the story revolves around a frontier family being confronted by the possibility that one of them is part Kiowa Indian. This causes a great deal of conflict and some killing. It's kind of a tough movie to watch in that respect as the hatred for Indians is so deeply engrained in the members of this family. John Huston directed this film, but apparently was at odds with the films producers a bit throughout the course of filming. I guess they really wanted THE UNFORGIVEN to be a more commercial western, whilst Huston wanted to make a account of racism in America. The final film lands somewhere in between the two and isn't quite as stark and hard hitting as I would imagine Huston wanted it to be. The cast here is good and it includes Lillian Gish, Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn (who broke her back during the production after a fall from a horse). Audie Murphy (with a rather stylish mustache), and a young Doug McClure. John Saxon also has a memorable role as an Indian horse tamer. 
This Blu-ray looks pretty good and the transfer is bright and mostly pretty clean.



CAST A GIANT SHADOW (1966; Melville Shavelson)
From Kino's Site:
"Part fact, part fiction, Cast a Giant Shadow powerfully dramatizes Israel's heroic 1947-48 struggle for independence. Both realistic war story and passionate romance, it features an all-star cast including Kirk Douglas, Senta Berger and Angie Dickinson, as well as Yul Brynner, John Wayne and Frank Sinatra in notable supporting roles. After a brilliant career in the U.S. army, WWII hero and Jewish American Mickey Marcus (Douglas) is called to the new state of Israel to build an army capable of withstanding its Arab foes. Against the wishes of his wife (Dickinson), Mickey makes the journey and begins transforming a ragtag underground army into a first-class fighting machine. But as the threat of war looms, Mickey must also confront his growing attraction to beautiful activist Magda Simon (Berger). Directed by Melville Shavelson (The Five Pennies)."
Ahh the era of the military epic film. Unlike something like THE LONGEST DAY, which also has an stellar cast like this movie, CAST A GIANT SHADOW reveals its cast in a slower parade format. Kirk Douglas is there right up front of course, as is his gal (played by Angie Dickinson), and soon we meet a general buddy of his (played by John Wayne). Let me just say that John Wayne is (not surprisingly) well suited to playing Army generals. 

Director Melville Shavelson was a name I was not immediately familiar with. I had seen his film THE FIVE PENNIES earlier this year, but had only heard of a handful of his other movies (HOUSEBOAT, THE SEVEN LITTLE FOYS, YOURS MINE AND OURS).
And let's talk about the context of Kirk Douglas' career at this juncture. To say he was a
"creative force" in Hollywood would be an understatement. He had done SPARTACUS in 1960 and that production is rife with stories of his involvement behind the scenes throughout the production. The phrase "I am Spartacus!" has always held some interesting special meaning to me in that I feel like it represents a certain coalescing of Douglas as an actor and a movie star. He was certainly a star before SPARTACUS and I don't necessarily think of that film as a huge boon to his popularity (though it may have been at the time, I have no idea), but I just feel like that line in the film is his kind "I'm king of the world" moment on some small way. I may be way off base, but there's just something about Kirk Douglas as movie star that always stood out to me from the way he delivered that line in the context of all that went on with the film. So Douglas followed SPARTACUS with some interesting choices in the early 1960s. He did TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN with Vincente Minnelli (a companion to their film THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL) and the outstanding LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (with a remarkable script by the then formerly blacklisted Dalton Trumbo). He went on to make the sharp political commentary/thriller SEVEN DAYS IN MAY a few years before this with the great John Frankenheimer. It's clear in this period (and prior) that Douglas was not one to shy away from politics and expressing himself through his creative choices and that is rather admirable. One need only look at PATHS OF GLORY to get a sense of Douglas' view on war itself. Douglas' parents were Jewish immigrants and so Judaism was a big part of his life growing up. He started to distance himself from that side of things when he was pretty young and looking to be an actor, but it would crop up later in his life. Several films he made, including CAST A GIANT SHADOW and a few others, would explore these themes and specifically the idea of a man who doesn't think of himself as a Jew beginning to explore and get in touch with that part of his heritage. A good friend of mine mentioned to me that he was even shown CAST A GIANT SHADOW in Hebrew school at one point, so it is apparently something of a touchstone film that folks remember. I found it intriguing to visit now for the first time as it contains those themes weaved into a very Hollywood-style narrative with lots of big actors like John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, and Angie Dickinson making appearances.



Bonus: Here's a fun little clip I found with Kirk Douglas from 1988 wherein he is interviewed by Johnny Carson to promote his new autobiography:

Friday, August 22, 2014

Underrated Action/Adventure - Jim Healy

Jim Healy is the Director of Programming for the University of Wisconsin Cinematheque (http://cinema.wisc.edu) as well as the fella who heads up the Wisconsin Film Festival (http://wifilmfest.org). The UW Cinematheque can be found on Twitter here:
For another great list, check out Jim's Underrated Westerns from a few months back:
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FIVE CAME BACK (John Farrow, 1939) 
12 people bound for Panama board a twin-propeller clipper plane. They crash in the middle of a South American jungle. Five come back. I like a good action-survival story as much as anyone else and this one is a genuine prototype for the multi-character disaster movie that would get further developed by Wellman’s The High and the Mighty and have its apotheosis in the early 70s with the Airport series, The Poseidon AdventureEarthquake, et al. In fact, Farrow (a really fine, underrated director) would refine the subgenre himself with his own excellent remake of Five Came Backin 1956, entitled Back from Eternity. For me, the original trumps the remake only by having Lucille Ball in the cast as the floozy with a heart-of-gold. Anita Ekberg is fine in the part in the remake, but this might be Lucy’s finest non-comedic performance. The 16mm print of Five Came Backthat I saw clearly came from inferior 35mm source material and I think this may point to why the film has never been released on DVD. Hopefully, it will get restored and re-released in some format soon.

THE NIGHT CALLER (aka FEAR OVER THE CITY/PEUR SUR LA VILLE, Henri Verneuil, 1975) 
Jean-Paul Belmondo is a cop tracking a serial killer. There’s nothing terribly memorable about the plot of this policier, but it has a great, creepy Ennio Morricone score andBelmondo, performing all of his own stunts like hanging from a helicopter and jumping from rooftop to rooftop in Paris, is truly remarkable. It’s a shame that in the U.S.Belmondo is primarily known as an art-house figure. I guess that’s because of his work with Godard and in stuff like Melville’s Leon Morin and Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid. His popular entertainments make it clear that he was in a league with Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan. Maybe the upcoming re-releases of That Man from Rio andUp to His Ears will remind audiences here of his incredible range and talents. I’ve only seen the American release version of Peur sur la ville, which cut almost a half hour from the European version and was retitled and dubbed into English. I don’t like it as much as The Burglars, one of the other Verneuil-Belmondo collaborations, but it is well worth seeing, even in the truncated cut.

COUNTER-ATTACK (Zoltan Korda, 1945) 
A typically hammy Paul Muni plays a Russian partisan who, after a building collapses, is trapped in a basement with a wounded fellow partisan and a handful of Nazi officers. Neither Muni (who has the only gun) or the Germans know who is on the outside trying to dig them out, so, while they wait, each side tries to pry secret information from the other. This is told on a much smaller-scale than Korda’swonderful Sahara (1943), but considering most of the action takes place in one room, the amount of twists and suspense is rather astonishing.

EXTREME PREJUDICE (Walter Hill, 1987) 
After failing to expand his audience with Streets of Fire, Brewster’s Millions, and Crossroads, Hill returned to straight-forwardaction with this fun and well-acted modern Western, avariation on The Wild Bunch. Nick Nolte is a Texas Ranger and Powers Boothe is his old buddy who is now selling drugs out of his south-of-the-border fortress. Nolte joins forces with a group of secret government operatives to take down Boothe, leading to a very bloody showdown. While the climax pales in comparison to The Wild Bunch, I like the way Hill mines the material to bring out themes familiar to Peckinpah fans, particularly the way it melancholically reflects on old traditions dying out. The whole movie is kind of in mourning for the Western, but the way it mixes contemporary action-movie trends with classical elements makes the story kind of unpredictable. The performances are pretty solid all-around especially Nolte and Rip Torn, who plays Nolte’s fellow Ranger and mentor.

SANTIAGO (1956, Gordon Douglas) 
When considering anything “underrated”, I would be neglectful if I didn’t include at least one selection from the enormously prolific and versatile Gordon Douglas. For my money, this is probably the best of Alan Ladd’s post-Shane cycle of adventure pictures, though I have yet to see the Douglas-directed Western The Big Land. Ladd and Lloyd Nolan play rival gun-runners who reluctantly team up to sell weapons to the rebels during the late 19th century Cuban War of Independence. They journey to Cuba on old Mississippi riverboat captained by Chill Wills. There’s nothing terribly memorable about the story, unless you count Chill Wills’sclimactic act of self-sacrifice, but Ladd is reliably sturdy and Douglas has a way of carrying you through the story and frequently startling you with ahead-of-its-time violence. It’s a solid entertainment. Set your DVRs, Santiago is airing on TCM Sunday August, 31 2014 at 02:00 AM!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Underrated Action/Adventure - Lars Nilsen

Lars is a programmer at Austin Film Society and there he curates repertory series in addition to midnight movies, new releases, independent films and classics. The bottom line though is that Lars is a man who has really immersed himself in interesting and offbeat cinema and has a lot to offer even the most dedicated cinephile as far as recommendations go.
Lars is on Twitter @thelarsnilsen:
The Austin Film Society can be found here:  
http://www.austinfilm.org
and Lars excellent AFS Viewfinders Facebook group can be found here:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/197585777057317/ 
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THE BURGLARS (1971): Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a safecracker who uses a very primitive form of computer to decode combination locks. When he and his team make a big score in Greece they are home free except for that one crooked cop who just has a feeling about him. Omar Sharif plays the cop and he’s fantastic. The Belmondo/Sharif duel extends between the roadway (a couple of extraordinary chases) to the dinner table (Sharif orders a big Greek meal for Belmondo and the whole meal plays as one big power play - great scene!). Later Sharif shows off his drunk interrogation technique, which you’ll just have to see to believe. Also, Belmondo gets dumped out of a garbage truck and rolls down a 100 foot slope as rocks fall all around him and then stands up and walks past the camera, all in one continuous shot. It’s wild. Music by Morricone, shot by Claude Renoir. Directed by Henri Verneuil, whose name you should really get to know.


BREAKDOWN (1997): I had never seen this until Zack Carlson showed it as part of his (Kurt) Russellmania show at the Alamo last year. Even though it was made in the worst decade yet for movies, it stands with the best. When Kurt Russell’s wife disappears, he goes berserk and takes off looking for her. But the catch is: he’s not a particularly tough or savvy guy. He’s an everyman who has to try to find a way to break through the cover-up and then deal with some pretty bad characters, including J.T. Walsh (very good in this). Most contemporary action movies don’t really end on a high note, they just peter out. The noise level on the soundtrack increases, but the final reel is generally pretty predictable. But here, director Jonathan Mostow saves his best stuff for the end, and the big payback scene is innovative, suspenseful and deeply satisfying.

HELL'S ANGELS ON WHEELS (1967): This one always gets lumped in with all the other motorcycle movies but it is so much different than most. Jack Nicholson is really, really good as the disaffected young man, working a dead end job, who decides to ride with the Hell’s Angels. Adam Roarke is equally good as the gang leader. And Sabrina Scharf plays a real female character, which is pretty unusual for biker movies. The film even gets into the reasons why any woman would hang out with a gang of supercharged sexists. This is a much smarter film than you’re probably expecting. There are the commercially required scenes of “wild parties” and a pretty great law man confrontation, featuring the great Jack Starrett as the sheriff. Plenty of good bike action too, mostly from the real bikers brought in to give the piece some authenticity. Shot by Laszlo Kovacs in his brilliant, roaming, hand-held style.

MARCH OR DIE (1977): Gene Hackman is very good as an American in the French Foreign Legion posted in North Africa. The unit he commands is assigned to protect a group of archaeologists from marauding bedouin tribesmen. Believing the archaeologists are defiling a sacred grave, one of the bedouin chiefs (Ian Holm) excites all the surrounding tribes to attack the expedition and the tough, haunted WWI veteran Hackman and his hard-to-corral group of men must resist the attack and protect their charges. There’s a lot of desert stillness and day-to-day ennui, and even a romance between Terence Hill and Catherine Deneuve. But the intensity is always there, thanks to Hackman. The final battle is big and very well staged but the bottom line is Hackman Hackman Hackman.

SISTER STREET FIGHTER (1974): I can’t be objective about Etsuko Shihomi (aka Sue Shiomi). I just love every second she’s on screen and that’s that. However, even if you don’t feel the same way about her, there’s still a lot to love in this really well-shot, fast-moving, and very ‘70s action burner. Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi knew he had a good thing when he cast Sue Shiomi and the films over-the-top action style establishes her as a martial arts superwoman, out for revenge. This is one of those movies that features a bunch of colorful, picturesque villains. My favorites are the “Amazon 7” a group of female Thai kickboxers in animal skin costumes. Sue Shiomi looks amazing and fights like a demon. I could watch this every day.



Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Underrated Action/Adventure - Josh Johnson

Josh Johnson directed a wonderful documentary all about VHS called REWIND THIS! and it is available digitally with extras here(including the soundtrack which is awesome): http://buy.rewindthismovie.com/ It is also now available on DVD and VHS here:
http://www.amazon.com/Rewind-This-DVD-Atom-Egoyan/dp/B00H312WCS 
 
Follow Josh's exploits on twitter here:
https://twitter.com/IPFjosh  

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BIG GUNS aka NO WAY OUT (1973)
Alain Delon once again plays the role of the coolest man to ever walk the earth in this icy descent into revenge. The film plays out like a series of murder set-pieces, almost the action equivalent of a slasher. Highly stylized, sleazy to the max, and pumped full of the kind of weird masculine energy that seemed to permeate the 70's.


DARK OF THE SUN (1968)
Speaking of masculine energy, this movie might hold the record for sweaty, grizzled manliness onscreen. Rod Taylor (!) and Jim Brown (!!) lead a pack of mercenaries (!!!) across the Congo to collect a huge score of diamonds (!!!!). The journey is dangerous, the heat beats down, tensions mount, and the mission spirals out of control. Featuring a supporting cast of people you don't want to get punched by.

THE BLADE (1995)
Tsui Hark had achieved a lot of success both as a producer and director by 1995, but he would throw away the characteristics that had defined his earlier work in this loose reworking of THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMEN. The atmosphere is thick, the environments are muddy and dank. Gone is the elegance and heroism of his ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA series, replaced here with extreme close-ups and frantic editing. The action on display feels like the work of a master who is bored with convention, and eager to experiment with the form. The results are exciting and unforgettable.

THE NO MERCY MAN (1973)
We've all seen movies about returning Vietnam vets who struggle to reintegrate into society. What makes this PTSD actioner so interesting is the refusal to portray any of the characters as being of strong moral fiber. The supposed heroes are racists, and their military service seen as ignoble. It's an action film for the post-Vietnam era, and its message is unclear. If I had to guess what it was trying to communicate, I'd say the following: If life gives you lemons, respond with violent retribution.

SPLIT SECOND (1992)
While it takes place in a sci-fi setting, this is an action movie to the core. Heavy firepower is utilized throughout, and Rutger Hauer is the ideal actor to anchor this explosive take on the "cop out to avenge his partner" movie. In this case, the criminal responsible for taking the life of Hauer's partner just happens to be a freakish monster who is eating peoples hearts. Set in a futuristic London with style to burn, the pleasures of this gem come fast and furious. It didn't catch on at the time of it's release, but the home video market has allowed it to pick up steam over the years. A surefire crowd-pleaser for those with a love for early 90's VHS action.

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