Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Simon Abrams ""

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Simon Abrams

Simon is a Film & TV Critic Whose Work Has Appeared in the AV Club, Esquire, L Magazine, Slant Magazine, Time Out New York, Village Voice, Vulture, Wide Screen. Also co-host of the Bad Idea Podcast: 
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Cannibal! The Musical(1993): Made with absolutely no budget, and distributed by Troma Films, this silly musical really hits the spot. Book of Mormon is impressive, but that's because Trey Parker and Matt Stone have only gotten better over time. You can see that, erm, maturation just by comparing early South Park episodes to more recent ones. With that in mind, I was surprised by how catchy the songs for Cannibal! are, and how endearing Parker's bug-eyed, deadpan performance is. Actually, a lot of the jokes in this loopy musical are reliant on Parker singing, and looking both appropriately stunned and quietly mortified. It also helps that the film's gross-out jokes are fairly polished. But hey, don't ask why, just see it.

First Name: Carmen(1983): To prepare for a screening of King Lear that I'm co-presenting this January, I've watched (and in some cases rewatched) 16 films directed by Jean-Luc Godard. And while First Name: Carmen is probably not the best of the bunch (I'm thinking either Vivre Sa Vie or Contempt), it is one that I keep coming back to. There's a low-brow humor to the film, inspired partially by Jerry Lewis movies, that I really like. But I was also struck by a key concept in Carmen that Godard revisits in King Lear: suspicious minds always go too far when they demand proof of their partners' faithfulness. In King Lear, Burgess Meredith's obsessive Don Learo needs his daughter Cordelia, played by Molly Ringwald, to proclaim her fidelity to him. But she can't, and she tells him that she can only promise, "No Thing." The "thing" in this case is a promise, and that promise is, to Godard, a fetish. Which is why it's a given that Cordelia is also the most faithful of Learo's daughters, all of whom profess their love to him, but also never fulfill said promises. And in First Name: Carmen, a security guard falls madly in love with a bank robber, only to discover that he can't change her or set her straight or whatever. She starts off as an idealistic, violent guerilla, and she ends that way. That's why their romance fails: Carmen's boyfriend would sooner stick a finger up her butt to see if there's any shit inside than trust her. Of course there's shit up that butt: it's a butthole, what else would be up there? That kind of rhetorical questioning is common for Godard, but it's not often that you see a major artist talk about fidelity in terms of sticking a finger up someone's butt.

Horrors of Malformed Men(1969): writer/director Teruo Ishii mashes together a couple of stories by Edogawa Rampo, one of my favorite horror writers, in this screwy, experimental genre mash-up. Like several of the films on this list, Malformed is sort of a detective story. A couple of protagonists set out to secure their inheritance from an insane Dr. Moreau-type. His psycho-sexual experiments are crude, sadistic and supposedly conscious-expanding. And while it takes a while for the movie to really get nuts, the trip to that point is pretty fun. I especially appreciated that Ishii, who samples a number of Rampo's better stories, had to cram in a reference to "The Human Chair," my favorite Rampo story. Malformed Men is endearingly loose and, well, deformed in ways that make you want to ignore the fact that it's just a collection of really neat stuff.

The Human Tornado(1976): If you gave me more time, I could probably think of a couple films that made just as giddy as this weiiiiird blaxtaploitation thing. But I'd rather not. I'm still not convinced that Rudy Ray Moore's Dolemite is the blaxtaploitation hero for me (didn't like his 1975 debut). But this movie is infrequently brilliant, even if only accidentally. Between its dopey, criss-crossing detective story, and its infrequently awesome displays of id-busting masculinity (the film's hilariously disturbing toy box dream sequence will surely delight and amaze the most open-minded Freudian), this movie charmed me by sheer dumb brute force.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion(1970): I've been trying to find a legal, subtitled copy of this film for a couple years now, five, six, maybe. I was particularly trying to see it on a big screen, as it hasn't shown in NYC until this year. But then bam, Film Forum came out with a new DCP of this strange, convoluted, and fairly heady procedural. Gian Maria Volonté (Vogel in Le Cercle Rouge and El Indio in For A Few Dollars More) stars as a police inspector that's simultaneously jockeying for a promotion and trying to get caught for murdering his mistress. Volonté's character talks out of both sides of his mouth throughout the film. He declaims about how potent and flawless the law is while actively undermining it. But the thing is: he's not just lying to others when he orates thunderously about how wonderful it is to be a fascist. The film ends in such a way that you can easily debate whether or not he proved or disproved his original point, or was just making shit up as he went. Great Morricone score, too.

Keetje Tippel(1975): Over the last couple of years, I've collected a number of Paul Verhoeven's early Dutch films. Because fuck it, why not? And while I didn't love The Fourth Man (though I did like it), Katie Tippel really hit the spot. The catty, top-this mode of period melodrama that Verhoeven uses here is brutally sensational. Each new ordeal and outlandish indignity that Katie faces whet my appetite for the next encounter in this terrific adaptation of Neel Doff's famously controversial memoirs.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind(1984): Hayao Miyazaki's debut feature is a real treat. It makes me think that his most assured films are the ones with the broadest scope. Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky, and Nausicaa are three of my favorite Miyazaki films, and all of them are expansive fantasies with intricate, though essentially basic, plots about a hero's journey to save their world from extinction. It probably helped that Miyazaki had a strong source to draw upon for this film (I used to flip through the pages of the manga whenever I visited the main branch of the Queens Public Library in Jamaica). But whatever the reasons, Nausicaa's surprisingly nuanced in its characterizations, visually impressive, and deftly plotted, too. That last point is especially impressive when you think about how over-long many of Miyazaki's films feel. This one doesn't fall apart in the end, however. I also really like the film's sound design: the sound effects are consistently stark, and effectively gave the film's characters weight and a sense of definition. The film's English dub voice cast is surprisingly good, too. Actors like Alison Lohmann, Uma Thurman, Edward James Olmos and Patrick Stewart obviously put as much care into their performances as Miyazaki and his original creative team did when they made this excellent adaptation.

Penn and Teller Get Killed(1989): I'm glad I finally found time to watch this gory anti-comedy because boy, is it fun. I was too young to get into Penn and Teller when they were originally a big thing, though my late grandfather used to religiously record Bullshit when it originally aired. Still, as bratty as Get Killed is, I did get a kick out of it, particularly the length that its creators went to build up, and then systematically destroy the seamlessness of their many bloody set pieces. Some of director Arthur Penn's (Little Big Man, Bonnie and Clyde) best movies are anti-myths, and this is certainly that. Get Killed's more glibly cynical than some of Penn's earlier works, but it's no less effective.

Pootie Tang(2001): Ok, I hadn't seen this until this year, so forgive me, but I laughed good and hard. Why would people complain about how stupid this movie is? What's wrong with stupid? Aspects of it are generic enough that it has virtually nothing to do with the blaxtaploitation genre that presumably spawned Mr. Tang's character. But yeah, it's goofy, sub-dada nonsense. And it's really funny! What? What? Don't look at me, I'm hideous!

Sharky's Machine(1981): I was under the mistaken impression that this movie had some really cool car chases in it. But, well, no. Still, Sharky's Machine is a surprisingly flinty neo-noir. A lot of the its charm comes from the clumsy but earnest way that Burt Reynolds, who starred in and directed Sharky, ultimately deflates his ego-protecting tough guy self-image. Sharky imagines that he's one of the good guys, and fantasizes about a romance with the woman he's surveying for work. But she spurns him, and that proves how un-trustworthy Sharky's sense of self is. That kind of image-busting drama would be even more bruising if Reynolds were a better actor (watching him listen to "My Funny Valentine" is kinda tortuous), or maybe just better at directing himself. But again, a noir that doesn't let its anti-hero off with a slap on the wrist, particularly when that hero is also the film's star/director, is rare. If nothing else, Sharky is a very unusual vanity project.

Wolfen(1981): I'd seen this werewolf neo-noir before but wasn't as floored by it then. Now, after having rewatched it on 35mm with two close friends at midnight? Yeah, I'm in. In his introduction to the film, Scott Foundas did a good job of prepping viewers by telling them to pay attention to how nuanced the film's soundtrack is (I love sharp, casual introductions like this; it's what I aspire to). Background noises are stacked on top of the other, which gives viewers a weird sensory overload. In that way, we get to feel how limited our understanding of events is. Meaning: we see things from the POV of monsters as they stalk the streets of Manhattan, but have no idea what they want until the (relatively conventional) end. Albert Finney stars as a deadbeat, unconventional (but successful!) cop that, along with fellow character actors Edward James Olmos, Gregory Hines, and Tom Noonan (in his debut role), figures out what the city is up against after a high-profile politician gets slaughtered in a park. The film's central question is necessarily provocative. It's a question that only a really good pulpy horror movie would think to ask: what happens when you piss off a monster that's more amoral, more powerful, and more dangerous than the ones that seek to actively rebuild a city? Werewolves, Bob. You get werewolves.


Ned Merrill said...

Nice to see SHARKY'S MACHINE make your list, although I think it's much better than a "vanity project" or at least could be described more charitably.

Film Forum has actually shown INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION a number of times in the last several years. There was a week-long run of a new 35mm print in 2003. That run may have been held over, as I recall seeing that trailer MANY times during that initial Film Forum revival. The new print played again in the Morricone series at Film Forum in '07. Now, in another "sign of the times" moment, Film Forum has revived the film again, this time in a "new DCP restoration."

Simon Abrams said...

Hey Ned

Good or bad, "Sharky" is a superior vanity project. I think it's a good one, but it is Burt Reynolds directing himself as a flinty anti-hero. So that counts, I'd say.

And yes, I knew of the 2007 screening of "Investigation," but was studying abroad in Florence at the time, so I missed it. I've lived in NYC all my life, but was in high school in 2003. So while I was hip back then, I think I was just not hip enough to realize what I was missing! :D

Ned Merrill said...

See, when I think of "vanity project," I think of something largely unworthy of anything save for satisfying the ego of the primary creator / mover, i.e. the vain one, of said project.

So, if we're talking Burt and vanity projects, of which there are quite a few, I'd submit something like STROKER ACE, made chiefly to stroke and stoke Burt's ego (and make $$) by Burt and Burt's people.

SHARKY, on the other hand, was intended as a serious vehicle that would compare favorably to DIRTY HARRY. I think we agree it largely succeeds. It contains less of the Burt schtick that made him the most bankable star in Hollywood than usual, and so didn't do the kind of business of the SMOKEY or CANNONBALL RUN films.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't usually see something like SUDDEN IMPACT (a superior HARRY sequel, BTW), produced, directed, and starring Eastwood (alongside his longtime companion) and featuring a host of Eastwood's people behind and in front of the camera, characterized as a vanity project.

Maybe I'm misreading or reading too much into your assessment of SHARKY, but it seems that because it's a Burt Reynolds vehicle it's more tempting to lump into such a category, given the man's well-known persona and much-discussed vanity / ego and penchant for unfortunate career choices while seemingly pissing away the afterglow from the good ones (see: BOOGIE NIGHTS or BREAKING IN or SHARKY for that matter).

Anonymous said...

I saw PENN & TELLER during it's very brief theatrical run. The ending remains one of the most uncomfortably surreal ones in memory. Folks in the theater really didn't know WTF to make of it!