Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Jack Criddle ""

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Jack Criddle

Jack Criddle is a filmmaker, video editor and cinephile based in Brooklyn. His senior thesis film at City College was a short biographical documentary about 1930’s sleaze director Dwain Esper. He has since produced promotional videos for the Massachussetts Museum of Contemporary Art and stained glass artist Debora Coombs. Some of his work can be seen here:

Blue Sunshine (1978)
This film had managed to elude me until I saw it at Anthology Film Archives’ Jeff Lieberman retrospective. Released the same year as Dawn of the Dead, it is a devastating cultural satire masquerading as drive-in horror that is maybe even more pointed than Romero’s film. Zalman King is amateur detective investigating the effects of the titular hallucinogen on his former college friends (including a Senatorial candidate who would rather have such things kept quiet) who, ten years later, are turning bald and regressing into psychopathic id-monsters. The scuzzy, low-budget aesthetic works wonders towards creating an atmosphere of terror, and scenes like the one in which an infected woman menaces two kids with a butcher knife are some of cinema’s most unsettling. The real beauty if the film is the way Lieberman uses the horror genre to encapsulate how the 60’s hippie ideals were squashed by the Watergate era.

Christmas Evil aka You Better Watch Out! (1980)
John Waters called this the greatest holiday movie of all time, and for those of us who find the Christmas more of a hassle than a celebration, it’s hard not to agree. Brandon Maggart (Fiona Apple’s real-life dad) plays disturbed man so preoccupied with Christmas that he fashions himself as Santa Claus. Maggart’s performance resembles that of a Yuletide Travis Bickle, with his insanity mounting as Christmas Eve draws nearer. His apartment, which is decked out with imagery of both the American, Coca-Cola Santa and the punishing, Scandanavian mythological incarnation of the character, is a small masterpiece of art direction. His Christmas Eve flight is incredibly suspenseful, as he doles out both presents to ‘good’ children and dismemberment and death to ‘naughty,’ selfish adults, with the audience not knowing which will come next. The film’s climax is more boldly silly, with its James Whale-inspired touches, but it’s a fitting end to the story of a monster created by the pressure we put on the holidays.

Peter Pan (2003)
This was actually a re-discovery for me, as I had seen it when it came out – the early 2000’s were the height of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings mania, and it seemed every kid’s fantasy novel, both old and new, was getting a big-budget movie adaptation. For some reason, it failed to make an impression on me a near-decade ago, but revisiting it, as my girlfriend and I were writing our own Pan-inspired script, was a revelatory experience. P.J. Hogan’s film works as both a straight adaptation and a film-as-literary-critique, fully aware of the story’s undercurrent of budding sexuality. In keeping with the novel, Jeremy Sumpter’s Peter is not a permanently puckish innocent, like the Peter of the Disney cartoon and other adaptations, but a boy willfully and pathologically resistant to adulthood, maturity, responsibility, and physical desire, who is able to use the magic powers of Neverland to stave them off. Rachel Hurd-Wood brilliantly handles the balance of Wendy Darling’s arc – that she is both a love interest to Peter and a mother to him and the Lost Boys, while not quite emotionally equipped to do either – and Jason Isaacs brilliantly characterizes Captain Hook with a mixture of Ahab-like obsession and moustache-twirling villainy.

Eating Raoul (1982)
Everyone rightly loves Paul Bartel’s whackadoo, futuristic car-race comedy Death Race 2000, but this year was the first time I saw his other masterpiece, despite the fact that it’s one of my girlfriend’s favorites and has been on the DVD shelf for ages. I’m glad I finally saw it, as it’s brilliant – a low-budget masterpiece that Bartel allegedly pieced together off-and-on, between collecting paychecks from Roger Corman. It plays like a 1940’s screwball comedy from a ruder and raunchier alternate dimension. Bartel and Mary Woronov (was any 70’s b-flick actress more gorgeous and hilarious?) are a financially embarrassed couple trying to raise money for a restaurant, who pose as fantasy scenario-enacting sex workers in order to lure in and murder fat-walleted perverts. One of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, although amidst the blue humor and deadpan absurdity is a poignant story of a couple wanting a better life that I think resonates all the more in recession-era present day.

Little Fugitive (1953)
This beautiful little film, shot by a trio of kid-portrait photographers, is one of the best New York City movies of all time. A six-year-old boy named Joey, after being tricked by his older brother’s friends into thinking he has killed his brother with a toy gun, runs away to Coney Island and spends the day there. Through gradually getting better at the athletic-based games of skill, returning bottles for money, and riding the ponies on the pony ride attraction, he starts to gain a sense of self. The film is a gorgeous time-capsule depiction of a long-gone Coney Island of the 50’s, and its naturalistic story was an admitted influence on the French New Wave directors shortly after. It also seemed very much to me like watching a movie of my father’s life as a little boy, even though he grew up in Southend-on-Sea, the Coney Island of southern Britain – so much so that I paid homage to it in the video installation I created for his recent sculpture show.

The Frisco Kid (1979)
I love both Gene Wilder and Robert Aldrich, but somehow this one had escaped me, and it’s one of both men’s respective best. Wilder is a Polish Hassidic rabbi crossing the country on horseback during the Wild West, with a very young Harrison Ford as his outlaw traveling companion. It sounds like the scenario for a follow-up to Blazing Saddles, but Aldrich infuses the fish-out-of-water, ethnic buddy-comedy with genuine warmth, pathos, and spirituality. Wilder won’t ride on the Sabbath even when an angry posse are after them, but finds kindred spirits in a Plains Indian tribe who admire his devotion to his faith. Ford makes for a perfect pairing alongside him, in a role that allows him to have fun with his tough-guy rouge image a few years before he had firmly established it.

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!? (1964)
Before 2012, I’d never come into contact with the work of Ray Dennis Steckler, though I had oft heard his name brought up as one of the worst directors of all time, and this awkwardly-titled opus referenced as being the source of a fan-favored MST3k episode. I finally saw it fresh, sans wiseassed robot commentary, and I loved it so much I want it on Blu-Ray along with all the rest of the late, great Steckler’s movies. This film isn’t ‘good’ in a traditional sense: it’s cheap and silly, and the acting, including Steckler’s own (under the pseudonym Cash Flagg) is awful. The narrative is episodic and nonsensical, with strange meandering musical interludes to fill out the time, which is due to the fact that the director never used a script when he shot a feature, he just went out and more or less made it up as he went. However, I did not see any other movie this year that made me want to grab a movie camera and run outside and play as much as this one did. The sense of fun and enthusiasm he has for the medium is infectious. And I’d defy anyone to watch Steckler/Flagg’s weird stab-dance with the nightmare carnival showgirls and tell me that Luis Bunuel or Jean Cocteau could have done it any better.

Seed of Chucky (2004)
I’ve followed Dennis Cozzalio’s wonderful blog ,Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule for years, and this is a film that he’s consistently championed, although I’ve heard nary a peep about it being worthwhile from anyone else. I’ve never been keen enough the Child’s Play trilogy to even properly remember what happens in which film, although Bride of Chucky did a fun job of repackaging the series’ storyline for the Scream-era, postmodern horror crowd. This entry, directed by original Child’s Play scribe Don Mancini, goes even further into satirical and meta territory, and emerges a bona-fide horror-comedy masterpiece. After having their souls transferred into the animatronic puppets created for the movie version of their story, Chucky and Tiffany argue over whether to raise their gender-confused son, Glen, to be a murderer like his old man, or to have them all abstain from carnage and live as a nice, happy family. Meanwhile, they plan to inject their souls into Jennifer Tilly (playing a great, funhouse-mirror version of herself) and Redman, who is directing Ms. Tilly as the Virgin Mary in his film version of the Bible. John Waters even appears, as a further clue into the film’s intentionally mischievous, satirical spirit. A pity more people haven’t embraced this one, but hopefully in time they will.

Persistence of Vision (2012)
I was instructed by our fearless leader, Mr. Pupkin, not to include any 2012 releases on this list, but I couldn’t resist this one. This documentary, by 25-year-old filmmaker Kevin Schreck, tells the story of Richard Williams, best known as the animation director on Who Framged Roger Rabbit, and his quixotic, 30-year, unfinished animated film The Thief and the Cobbler. Williams started making the picture, funded by commercial and title sequence jobs, in the early 60’s, and accepted a deal from Warner Brothers in the 80’s for completion funds. However, when he couldn’t meet the studio’s deadlines, it was taken out of his hands and finished in a Frankenstein-monster fashion, and unceremoniously dumped out as a direct-to-video Aladdin ripoff. Williams still won’t speak publicly about the film, and refused to be interviewed, although his former animating staff are very candid indeed about their experiences. However, thanks to the archival research of Garrett Gilchrist, who continues to work on a “Recobbled” fan edit of the movie, Persistence showcases a wealth of production footage, pencil tests, and concept drawings from the film, as well excerpts from British TV documentaries Williams participated in. The master animator seems to grow more haggard and exasperated, and ages right before our eyes, and admits to being his own worst enemy in terms of perfectionism and feeling as if he is never finished. Though Persistence can’t be sold or even shown outside the festival circuit due to copyright issues, it is a worthy tribute to Williams and to the agony and ecstasy of artistic pursuits, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in animation or filmmaking.

1 comment:

Ned Merrill said...

CHRISTMAS EVIL has been on my to see list for awhile...need to get on that.

Saw FRISCO KID years ago in Hebrew school before I had a realization of who Aldrich was...I suppose I should revisit. It's worth noting that "very young" Harrison Ford was 36-37 years-old at the time. He didn't become a star into relatively late and has some remarkable genes, so it's easy to forget that the guy turns 71 this year.

Watched and enjoyed the hell out of EATING RAOUL about 20 years ago when I was a kid discovering Bartel and the rest of the New World-bred filmmakers. I have the new Criterion, but haven't unwrapped it yet.

LITTLE FUGITIVE is another I've really needed to see for awhile. Thanks for the reminder.