Rupert Pupkin Speaks: December 2011 ""

Friday, December 30, 2011

Ned Merrill's Top 11 Repertory Titles seen first in 2011

My very good friend Ned Merrill(who runs the Obscure One-Sheet Blog) has turned me onto a fair number of excellent films over the years. So needless to say, I look forward to this list from him each year. I think I've only seen a few of these myself, so there is much to dig into for 2012! (plus check out Ned's list from 2010!)

alphabetical, going to 11 for 2011:

BEAT THIS! A HIP-HOP HISTORY (1983, Dick Fontaine, video projection): Noted BBC documentarian Fontaine's stylish and vital film documents the nascent hip-hop culture in the Bronx in the early '80s years that were so pivotal to the growth of the genre and subculture, while offering a nuanced, genuinely interested, non-prejudiced viewpoint that could only come from an outsider at that time. We see the expected figures like Afrika Bambaataa and the Cold Crush Brothers and we also get equally necessary, priceless interviews with the likes of Malcolm McLaren, signifying the historical parallels between seemingly disparate genres like punk and hip-hop. For those interested in seeing street level New York of the late '70s and early '80s, not filtered through Hollywood, Fontaine's film offers ample footage of the city as it was then and, with that, evidence of a singularly creative and beautiful cultural moment even, as it were, in the midst of the urban blight typical of the working class unfriendly Reagan era. It's hard to top the image of Bambaataa and a comrade overlooking the Bronx from the top of a tenement building and noting its inherent beauty and their role in it.

CITY GIRL (1930, F.W. Murnau, Blu-ray): Another masterpiece that I am coming to inexplicably late...I didn't get to see this via a 35mm print, but the MoC Blu-ray is about the best possible substitute, I think. A farm boy (Charles Farrell) goes to the city to sell his father's wheat and comes home with lonely waitress (Mary Duncan), much to the chagrin of his family, particularly his father (David Torrence). Farrell and Duncan are a beautiful onscreen couple, with Duncan being particularly heartbreaking in the later scenes where she struggles to stand up for herself against Farrell's father and the other farm workers. Murnau makes the day to day life scenes in the urban and rural settings gorgeous and cinematic, while simultaneously depicting their harshness and the characters' loneliness within them. Kind've amazing that this might be considered minor's anything, but that.

FANTASTIC PLANET (1973, Rene Laloux, Blu-ray): Another day, another gorgeous Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema...I am an aficionado of animation for adults, but it inexplicably took me until now to finally see Laloux's masterpiece, which has a perfect combination of art, story, music--by Gainsbourg cohort Alain Goraguer, and that undeniable trippy-ness that seems to be unique to the late '60s and early '70s, and it is not something that can only be enjoyed or appreciated while under the influence of...whatever. It's nigh impossible to not be drawn in by the beautiful and evocative hand-drawn animation and design and, of course, the deliberate pace that seems to be impossible for children and adults today to accept and fall under the spell of. For those that appreciate the cinema of Bakshi, particularly something like WIZARDS, this is an obvious no-brainer, but then, you probably already knew that.

THE GAMBLER (1974, Karel Reisz, DVD): A remake of Reisz and James Toback's THE GAMBLER was recently listed as in development, with Scorsese and Di Caprio attached, prompting a scathing rebuke from Toback, who was not consulted on the new project . I understand his frustration, seeing as this was his first screenplay and it is so close to his personal experiences--though there is high probability that the announcement may remain just announcement. As an avowed student of the New American Cinema, particularly the titles that fall outside of the canon, it's somewhat amazing to me that I kept missing this one for so long. Toback's highly autobiographical script follows an amped up, hotshot James Caan, truly at the top of his game here, repeatedly fall into and climb out of...and fall back into sizable gambling debts. He's a brilliant New York literature professor, scion of a prominent Jewish family, and highly addicted gambler. There are great, uniquely New York characters and incidents here, some of which appear again in similar fashion in Toback's directorial debut FINGERS. One of my all-time favorite character players, Burt Young, hits a home run in a small, but pivotal role as a collector with no qualms about getting violent and Morris Carnovsky, co-founder of the Group Theatre, gives a knowing, powerful performance as the Jewish patriarch, particularly in the scene in which he puts the kibosh on Caan's shiksa girlfriend (Lauren Hutton). This is as incisive a film about addiction and the addictive personality that I've seen--someone close to me who has conquered serious addiction has cited this film as one of the supreme cinematic portrayals of the experience. On a secondary level, Toback's script offers an equally authentic portrayal of one strand of the Jewish-American experience and distinctly NY machismo.

HEAT LIGHTNING (1934, Mervyn Le Roy, DVD): One of the more perfect Pre-Code films this devoted Pre-Code enthusiast has seen, HEAT LIGHTNING stars the incomparable Aline MacMahon as the no-nonsence owner of a filling station located on an isolated stretch of American southwest desert. Based on a one act play by Robert F. Carroll, the film version was condemned by the Legion of Decency and just managed to get out there before the Code was re-worked and enforced in mid-1934. MacMahon tries to keep her naive younger sister (the great Ann Dvorak) from making the mistakes she made with men when she was an impressionable young woman while serving the needs of whoever stumbles upon her little oasis, including a fellow (character actor supreme Preston Foster) she has a regrettable history with. Pre-Code standbys Lyle Talbot, Glenda Farrell, and Frank McHugh make welcome appearances in Mervyn's Le Roy's lightning quick melodrama, but it is the remarkable MacMahon you will remember above all else.

MORE (1969, Barbet Schroeder, Blu-ray): Not that I was traveling the world at the time, let alone alive, nor have I ingested heroin in any shape or form, but Schroeder's debut seems to have perfectly captured the globetrotting hippie experience circa '69, and its dark side. My late father spent something like a year traveling in Spain and eventually Morocco around the same time this film was produced. I was never able to get all the stories about those days out of him, sadly, but I'm sure he met people like the tragic Mimsy Farmer and Klaus Grunberg in MORE and had some of the same experiences. Watching this film via the BFI's absolutely gorgeous Blu-ray, I felt my dad's presence near me. Schroeder got in a lot of trouble with censorship authorities in various territories for his too real depiction of all things junkie. However, rather than the drug lingo and authentic depiction of usage, it's the loose narrative portraying the experience of young, progressive types exploring exotic, foreign locales at that particular moment in time that resonates with me.

REMEMBER MY NAME (1978, Alan Rudolph, DVD-R from VHS rip): Rudolph's second film remains one of the most truly New Wave and avant-garde films to come out of a major American studio, making most other films, even in the "anything goes" '70s heyday of the New American Cinema, appear conventional. Of course, this made it a disaster in the eyes of Columbia and the film remains unavailable on home video due to legal issues concerning the original soundtrack score composed by blues singer Alberta Hunter. It was reissued theatrically by an independent distributor in 1979, an unusual circumstance for an American studio film; since then, it's been available to see only through repertory screenings or the rare television broadcast. Largely eschewing narrative logic, the film's concern is not in making sure that all the loose ends of the rather skeletal plot are wrapped up; it's more about watching recently paroled murderess Geraldine Chaplin make figurative mincemeat of everyone she crosses paths with including former husband Anthony Perkins--here, not playing the craziest person in the room, his current wife Berry Berenson, landlord Moses Gunn, supermarket manager boss Jeff Goldblum, and co-worker Alfre Woodard. According to Jonathan Rosenbaum's 1979 review of the film, Rudolph intended it as an update of the Warner Bros. women's pictures starring Davis, Stanwyck, Crawford, something which Rosenbaum suggests has been crossed with European art cinema, particularly that of Rivette. Those elements, when combined with the songs whose lyrics closely mirror the thoughts of Chaplin's Emily and the absolutely fearless, revelatory performance of Chaplin, make REMEMBER MY NAME a must-see.

SAILOR'S LUCK (1933, Raoul Walsh, 35mm): James Dunn and Sally Eiler, the hard-luck lovers of Borzage's classic BAD GIRL (1931), returned in Walsh's more light-hearted 1933 comic romance SAILOR'S LUCK, hooking up when sailor Dunn and his pals get shore leave in San Pedro and Dunn falls for Eilers...and, really, who wouldn't?! This briskly-paced, enormously entertaining, often laugh out loud funny film is another sublime Pre-Code title, which will hopefully become more widely available for home viewing now that a new print has been struck. Typical of many Pre-Code films, there is plenty of off-color humor and the film actually acknowledges the different ethnicities of the characters and not only for humorous effect--it's something that would sadly mostly disappear from American cinema screens for the next three decades or so. While movies like SAILOR'S' LUCK poke fun at certain ethnic stereotypes, it's mostly equal opportunity...seemingly everyone gets razzed at some point.

SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION aka NEVER GIVE A INCH (1971, Paul Newman, 35mm): A lost masterpiece of the early post-ratings era, Paul Newman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's second novel is one of those films that evokes some of the best elements of the studio-era picture while maintaining an attitude and containing the harder-edged content that came with the creation of the ratings system and the progressive mores of the late '60s and early '70s. Newman is the Hud-like older son of Oregon logging family patriarch Henry Fonda, leading the clan against the town's unionized workers who want the family to join them on the picket lines, in the face of lower wages and shorter hours by way of the introduction of the chainsaw. This is a tough, but intelligent masculine-heavy drama with Newman mounting--and acting in--some damned impressive, authentically physical logging sequences. Hearing an ornery Fonda repeatedly cuss and call out younger son Michael Sarrazin for coming back from New York City with long hair never gets old. Lee Remick is incredibly moving as Newman's ignored wife. The four lead actors are matched and then some by the perpetually undervalued Richard Jaeckel as Newman's cousin and co-worker who shares the film's most memorable moment with Newman, a gut-wrenching scene that garnered Jaeckel a well-deserved Oscar nomination. The film's alternate title, which graced the 35mm print I viewed, comes from Fonda's oft-repeated credo: "Never give a inch!" (Netflix Instant Link)

THE SOUND OF FURY aka TRY AND GET ME (1950, Cy Endfield, Netflix Instant): Cy Endfield is one of those directors of the moment for me...seems like I've seen a number of gems directed by this Blacklistee recently, or have them in my "to watch" pile. HELL DRIVERS was a major discovery for me when I saw it in a Brit noir series a couple years back at Film Forum; SANDS OF THE KALAHARI, ZULU, and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND remain in my unwatched Blu-ray pile. This brings me to THE SOUND OF FURY, which I caught via Netflix Streaming. Not on DVD (I don't know that it ever appeared on any home video format), it's as dark and disturbing a film noir as one is likely to find. The perpetually underrated Frank Lovejoy is a down on his luck regular joe struggling--big time--to provide for his wife and young son. Catching Lovejoy in a moment of desperation, cocksure, small-time hood Lloyd Bridges manipulates the nice guy into being his wheelman on a number of hold-up jobs. As they usually do in stories like this, things go horribly wrong leading to one of the more shocking, brutal, impassioned, and moving denouements I've seen in an American film, particularly one from the '50s. The events in the film were inspired by the Brooke Hart murder and the lynching that followed, an incident that also gave inspiration to Lang's FURY. At the moment, the estimable Film Noir Foundation is raising funds to restore SOUND OF FURY in order to make it more accessible and widely seen...a great and noble mission, if you ask me. (Netflix Instant Link).

TESS (1979, Roman Polanski, 35mm): I don't know why I hadn't seen Polanski's TESS until now, but I'm glad I was able to experience it via a good 35mm print during MoMA's Polanski retrospective. This is sumptuous, exhilarating, and sensitive filmmaking of the first order. Never mind that Nastassia Kinski is the only one of the film's British characters to speak with a German accent...she is absolutely right and, of course, beautiful in the title role. She is another of the persecuted outsiders that appear so often in Polanski's work. I haven't read Hardy's TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES, nor way too many other literary classics, so I don't know how much or little Polanski diverges from the source. In my eyes, it's one of the benchmark literary adaptations, a lovingly mounted production with great performances all around, sublime score by Philippe Sarde, Oscar-winning photography by the late Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet, and Oscar winning set decoration and design. Another sterling example of Polanski's enormous range as a filmmaker, while also retaining some of his favorite themes and narrative elements.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Josh Johnson's Favorite Older Films Seen 1st in 2011

Josh Johnson is a contributor at Daily Grindhouse as well as one of the filmmakers behind the upcoming documentary on VHS and it's impact called REWIND THIS!(which I am very much looking forward to). Follow the film's Twitter and check the website for updates. He's put together a fantastic list of fascinating flicks for your viewing pleasure.

CRIME WAVE(1984) This Canadian oddity burrowed deep into my psyche. It tells the story of a screenwriter named Steven Penny who wants to write a crime film but struggles to come up with the middle section of the story. The film shows us the myriad beginnings and endings he concocts while pushing forward towards a variety of unexpected scenarios within the main narrative. We are pulled back and forth between a naive, hyper-colorful suburban wonderland and a putrid, threatening, downright weird outside world. The frequent stylistic shifts are jarring in the best possible way, pumping you full of the electricity of breaking all the rules. At a certain point there is no longer any concern for whether or not Steven will finish his script, it is too much fun to see what the next scene will have in store.

DEMON WIND(1990) A snowglobe drops to the floor causing an entire house to explode. Poorly defined characters wander about through the frame as though cut free from invisible cords that had been holding them in place. A martial-arts expert/magician/serious bro named Chuck shows up in a convertible and roundhouse kicks a beer can into somebodies head. Demons with dripping, formless faces fire lasers. You are in the world of DEMON WIND. It is a world that cannot be understood. You can only submit. YOU MUST SUBMIT.

ENCOUNTER AT RAVEN'S GATE(1988) Rolf De Heer creates an occasionally confusing but always engrossing account of extraterrestrial activity affecting a small township in Australia. De Heer mines the various phenomena occurring to create arresting images, most noteworthy being a rainstorm of dead birds. Everything starts out as a slightly odd tale of a punk mechanic struggling to find love and a place of his own in a community that doesn't understand him. Before too long the focus shifts to body possession, creepy sexual dynamics, cartoonish high-pitched arguments, and homicidal lunacy. Somehow it all comes together in a way that feels cohesive and precise. The outback is a perfect backdrop for this odd UFO melodrama, the landscapes are otherworldly enough for the events to seem possible in the environment where they take place. (Netflix Instant Link)

FLESHPOT ON 42ND STREET(1973) Bitterly angry and caustic, Andy Milligan's final sexploitation film is filled with the same contempt for the world as his earlier work but it hits harder than expected here. There are two broken figures at the center of things, a drag qeen named Cherry and a prostitute named Dusty. They pal around the city, pass off tricks to each other, use each other as sounding boards for their dreams, and so on. The violence they encounter in their professions is treated as expected and perhaps even deserved. The possibility of hope seems like a cruel joke from the moment it materializes. These two are damned to unhappiness and there will be no redemption for them in the end. Milligan's bleak worldview contaminates all of his film work but in the case of FLESHPOT it is front and center moreso than ever before. It is as though he is bleeding straight onto the celluloid, using his pain in the creation of the material like some crazed alchemist. Watching it won't ruin your life but it will almost certainly ruin your day.

FLOODING WITH LOVE FOR THE KID(2010) This $96 minimalist exercise is the most inspirational and emotionally powerful movie I watched this year. I gazed in stunned silence and had tears streaming down my face almost constantly. Zachary Oberzan adapted the novel "First Blood" by playing every character himself, using nothing but materials immediately available to him, completely within the confines of his 220-square-foot apartment. The finished product is shockingly effective, with Oberzan's various characterizations appearing to exist completely independent of one another. The primitive filmmaking techniques slip away from your consciousness almost instantly and the film propels itself to the finish line through sheer force of will. The audience walks away with the impression that a lack of imagination is the only limitation that truly exists for the aspiring artist.

HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN(1974) I made an effort this year to see everything that could be classified as "blaxploitation horror". This was the stand-out film from that experiment and it has really stayed with me. The production design and use of color is just lovely and the themes of racial identity it explores are far more insightful than one would have any reason to expect. I'll also be forever grateful to this film for introducing me to Janee Michelle, one of the most beautiful women to ever be captured by a camera. She turns in a terrific performance and defies you to take your eyes off of her. Despite it's obvious attachment to the post-SHAFT movement to capitalize on a new market by utilizing Afro-centric casting, this is more of a gothic horror story than an urban thriller. The reference points are closer to Corman's Poe adaptations than films like BLACULA. It catches you off-guard by always being better than it has to be.

MESSIAH OF EVIL(1973) When the credits roll at the end of MESSIAH OF EVIL you feel as though you've just awakened from a nightmare that will haunt you for the rest of your life. The film unfolds itself as a quiet but startling collage of dream imagery. The camera lingers for uncomfortable stretches of time as surreal scenes play out according to their own rules. The film brilliantly takes seemingly mundane environments and twists them into frightening locations fraught with danger. The mysterious town with a horrible past evokes Lovecraft but the style of the film is all art-house, like Bergman riffing on CARNIVAL OF SOULS. I can recall very little of the plot points in the film but there are images that will stay with me forever.

THE PROWLER(1951) Surely this is one of the least predictable noirs one is likely to unearth. The story of a corrupt cop obsessed with the unhappy wife of a night-time radio DJ goes in directions nobody could possibly anticipate. Written by black-listed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, we are treated to a penetrating study of how unhealthy fixation can become an overwhelmingly destructive force when left unchecked. The third act pushes us over an edge we didn't know we were standing so close to. The conclusions arrived at are surprising in the modern era, imagine how shocking they must have seemed in 1951. Highly recommended for those looking to explore the darkest side of human nature.

SCIENCE CRAZED(1991) This film challenged my notions of how movies work like no other movie I saw in 2011. Imagine you are given 40 minutes of footage and asked to assemble it into a 90 minute feature. How would you go about recycling a limited number of scenes? How would you try to establish a rhythm to your cutting when 50% of the piece has no clear motivation for existing? If you are as inspired as filmmaking partners Ron and Donna Switzer you create hypnotic murder sequences that circle back on themselves and never-ending exercise montages. Regardless of the original intent, SCIENCE CRAZED plays less like a film and more like a museum installation or avant-garde theater piece. Very little happens yet we are constantly gripped, always fascinated, never feeling the sting of boredom. This is the cinema experience of 2011 that I cherish more than any other.

SOME CAME RUNNING(1958) Gambling, failed relationships, alcoholism, the long-term damage of combat experience. These are all elements that can be found in a variety of 50's melodramas. However, in the hands of Vincent Minnelli, these disparate issues are weaved into an all-too-believable story of human weakness getting in the way of best intentions. Alternately funny and tragic, the lingering sensation that is left by SOME CAME RUNNING is that being alive is a tremendous privelage. The warmth it projects is powerful because it acknowledges the pain of love and loss without diluting the feelings of pleasure and satisfaction that other human being can bring into our lives. It portrays concepts like romance and sacrifice in terms we can all touch, a noble accomplishment worthy of being seen.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Lars Nilsen's Favorite Older Films Seen 1st in 2011!

Ran this series last year and I plan to keep it going. I am always excited to see what wonderful films my compadres have dug up throughout the course of each year. I am assembling my list presently, but I thought I would kick things off in style with a list from the fantastic Mr. Lars Nilsen. His Alamo Drafthouse Weird Wednesday series is an institution of glorious celluloid oddities. Lars himself is a man of unrivaled tastes, so when he speaks of movies that he's taken with, I listen. You should too. Keep checking back through this month and January for more of these lists! (Also have a look at Lars' list from last year!)

A SKY FULL OF STARS FOR A ROOF (1967)- I was knocked out by this subtly comedic Spaghetti Western starring Giuliano Gemma and Mario Adorf as an endlessly scheming con man and his somewhat willing dupe who always manage to stay one or two steps ahead of the psychopathic father and son murder team that pursues them across the west. Full of generous, graceful little character notes, it has the feel of a picaresque novel. Gemma and Adorf are excellent. Giulio Petroni made this one between DEATH RIDES A HORSE and TEPEPA.

BANDITS VS. SAMURAI SQUADRON (1978) - Astonishing major outlaw samurai epic. As brilliant as the many big setpieces are, the film is ultimately a showcase for the great actor Tatsuya Nakadai, playing an exiled samurai (and a damn good one) who becomes chieftain of a band of thieves in opposition to a corrupt power structure. When he decides to retire, he proposes one last score, a really, really big one.

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) - I had somehow never seen this William Wyler classic. I expected it to be good, but it is very, very good. All about 3 GIs who return from WWII to find that everything is different. Pretty wrenching at times, with excellent performances from Dana Andrews, Fredric March and the disabled veteran Harold Russell. Teresa Wright gives a virtuoso performance, as always.

DEADLY PREY (1987) - I was expecting this very cheap, straight-to-video action movie to be humorously inept, but it's actually surprisingly well executed. It is funny, but director David Prior really understands action films, which makes this film kind of a functioning skeletal model of an action movie.

MADE IN U.S.A. (1966) - Watching this, I realized I don't watch as many Godard films as I should. People are quick to criticize Godard for indulging in fashionable ideas, but at least they are ideas, not last years cliches dusted off and wearing a new hat. The sheer photographic beauty of his films is worth it, and the three or four days you'll spend thinking about the ideas presented in his movies is a bonus.

MORNING OF THE EARTH (1971) - The psychedelic culmination of the surf movie cycle that began with the square surfari films. This is loaded with druggy effects, full-on cosmic consciousness and the perfect soundtrack. It's a surfing travelogue, but it's also one of the best movies I've seen about transcendence.

NOTHING LASTS FOREVER (1984) - Wow! Tom Schiller (SNL's SCHILLER'S REEL) made this one-of-a-kind black and white feature, which exists in an alternate universe New York in an indistinct time period - scenes seem to take place in the '40s, '50s, '60 and '80s. Zach Galligan plays a young man who wants to become an artist, but has to be licensed by the restrictive Port Authority occupiers. A simple kind deed brings him into contact with the secret subterranean gods of New York art. He takes a bus ride to the moon, falls in love, and becomes an artist. I left out a lot of stuff. Really unusual movie. Featuring Bill Murray as a total dick.

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) - Another big classic I had missed. It's difficult to believe Hollywood ever had this much respect for an audience's intelligence, literacy and humanity. Hard to imagine anything like that ever happening again, but without performers of this caliber (Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart and Cary Grant), it couldn't be done anyway. The story is a bit overbulky in places and a bit skimpy in others, but there's so much pure spun gold here, who could complain?

THE STOOGE (1952) - Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in a period story about a vain Vaudeville star and his stooge, who actually sells the tickets. Lots of gags but mostly this is a serious drama and Martin and Lewis are really good at both comedy and drama. The best Martin and Lewis film I've seen yet.

'W' IS WAR (1983) - Clearly somebody wanted to get some MAD MAX style postapocalyptic images into the trailer, but they weren't making that kind of movie, so you get a movie about a solitary cop versus a gang of marijuana growers who just happen to look like warriors of the wasteland, with vehicles to match. Brutal and absurd, with a shocking castration scene.