Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - William Bibbiani ""

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - William Bibbiani

Hey everyone. How’s it going? The internet sure is lively today. Do you need someone to freshen your drink? What’s that you got there? Tab? Yuck.

When I’m not co-hosting The B-Movies Podcast or co-writing and co-starring in The Trailer Hitch, I watch a lot of movies. It’s in the job description after all. The thing is, there are so many new movies to review that watching a bunch of old ones, particularly just for fun or my own personal edification, gets harder and harder to fit in my schedule. But I try, I really try. This year I was able to catch up on dozens of films, but I’ve narrowed that down to about a dozen notable flicks that still stick out in my memory months later. There are a few masterpieces that I’m only just now getting around to, some b-movie schlock that I love, and some z-grade crap that I highly suggest you get around to sooner or later, for better or worse.

It Happened One Night (1934, dir. Frank Capra, 35mm)
It Happened One Night was a deep source of personal shame. This damned thing won the five “big” Academy Awards – Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay – and is one of only three films to do so. As an Oscar lunatic, you’d think I’d have seen it before 2012. But no, it never came up, and while I felt really bad about it, I wasn’t properly motivated until it played at the New Beverly Theaters in Los Angeles as a double bill with Vibes. There was NO WAY that I was going to miss Vibes, so I figured the time had finally come to see Frank Capra’s mismatched lover road comedy that, I was to discover, has been so ridiculously influential that practically every scene already seems familiar. My god, It Happened One Night has been ripped off so many times. Even Bugs Bunny owes his very existence to Clark Gable’s mannerisms and his curious carrot fixation. (Unrelated: “Curious Carrot Fixation” sounds like a Tumblr account waiting to happen.)

And yes, I love It Happened One Night now. Everyone’s comic timing is impeccable, and by the very end, fate so successfully conspired to keep Gable and Claudette Colbert apart that I honestly thought It Happened One Night could end in genuine tragedy. When was the last time a romantic comedy made you feel like that?

The Ninth Configuration (1980, dir. William Peter Blatty, DVD)
As a diehard fan of The Exorcist III – dear god, it’s so amazing – I knew at some point that I’d have to watch The Ninth Configuration, another trip down the annals of human sanity from writer/director William Peter Blatty. Fortunately, a very dear person sat me down and made it so. Stacey Keach stars as a psychologist assigned to a dilapidated castle, now converted to a mental institution for military personnel. Keach’s own grip on reality, we discover, is already a little tenuous, and soon the inmates have him convinced that the only way to cure them is to indulge their delusional fantasies. All-dog productions of “Hamlet” ensue.

The cast of characters (who really put the “character” in “character,” if you see where I’m going there), are thoughtful, a little mad, and all their own version of lovable. The ending… I have a couple problems with, but it’s all in service of an honest exploration of sanity, insanity, and whether an ounce of good exists within us all.

Torn Curtain (1966, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, Blu-ray)
I had the pleasure of reviewing the Alfred Hitchcock: Masterpiece Collection Blu-ray set this year, and while it actually included several pictures that I watched for the first time – including the excellent Frenzy, the delightful Family Plot, and the quirky The Trouble with Harry – I think that Torn Curtain was the biggest surprise. Those other films have their fervent supporters. Torn Curtain never seems to get enough credit for being a nifty little thriller.

Julie Andrews stars as an American scientist whose husband, Paul Newman, defects to Soviet Russia at the height of the Cold War. That may seem like a tragedy, but the real tragedy is that Newman can’t tell her he’s really double agent working for the U.S., since they’re being watched 24/7. So Andrews feels the non-stop sting of betrayal and Newman deals with overwhelming guilt for deceiving her. Andrews and Newman could have had more romantic chemistry… okay, a LOT more… but Torn Curtain deserves more credit for the exciting premise and a handful of suspense sequences (including a genuine masterpiece aboard a public bus) that rank among Hitchcock’s best, even though they’re not in his best film by any stretch of the imagination.

The Lord of the Rings (1978, dir. Ralph Bakshi, Blu-ray)
Having loved all the Peter Jackson movies (until The Hobbit, that is), as well as the Rankin/Bass animated adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy novels, it was only natural that I’d finally get off my butt and watch Ralph Bakshi’s motion picture adaptation of the first two Lord of the Rings novels. It’s pretty damned great, isn’t it?

The film feels, predictably, a little rushed, breezing through the eventful Two Towers in the last act alone, but I was struck by just how much material Bakshi covers that Jackson never even touched, as well as the very different approaches the two filmmakers had to the exact same material. The balrog is about thirty feet shorter in The Lord of the Rings, and yet it really does seem a lot creepier. Bakshi’s version might have even been the better film overall, if this particular Samwise wasn’t one of the most annoying animated creations in movie history. Dear god, no wonder they scoured the Shire. (Too soon?)

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006, dir. Mamoru Hosoda, Blu-ray)
A teenage girl develops the ability to travel through time – by taking leaps of faith – and uses it to micromanage everything that happens in her interpersonal relationships. Chaos follows, but it always stems from character, not the oppressive machinations of an external plot. Example: the heroine’s best friend confesses that he “likes” her, but the moment is so damned awkward that she prevents it from ever happening. The thing is, she can’t undo her own memory, and the pain of knowing her best friend’s secrets soon greatly outweighs the pain of simply dealing with them in the first place.

There are other secrets – oh, so many secrets – to be revealed, but the elliptical storytelling and beautiful cast of characters keeps everything grounded. You’ve never leapt through time, but you know exactly what the hero feels like, every step of the way. Between this and Summer Wars – perhaps destined for my “Best of the Decade” list – Mamoru Hosoda may be one of my favorite directors alive.

The Phantom of the Opera (1943, dir. Arthur Lubin, Blu-ray)
My new favorite adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera comes, surprisingly enough, from Arthur Lubin, the director of six Francis the Talking Mule movies. This Technicolor adaptation is a curious animal, combining gothic tragedy and romantic comedy tropes in equal measure, and yet somehow it captures the fine balance between those two extremes. Claude Rains stars as the title figure, who sacrifices everything for a young ingĂ©nue (Susanne Foster), who’s too busy fending off the advances of bickering love interests (Edgar Barrier and Nelson Eddy) to notice him until he’s horrifically scarred and takes to murdering her contemporaries. Because that always works.

The heartbreaking prologue of this Phantom of the Opera plays an awful lot like the origin of a Batman villain, and that very self-contained tragedy keeps the movie’s soul in the right place even when the lavish opulence of the production runs counter to the story’s eerie, obsessive emotional center. And the ending, the very ending, is one of the best romantic comedy finales around, no matter how many corpses are left over. It’s got something for everyone, and for a change, everyone’s likely to leave satisfied.

The Toy Box (1971, dir. Ronald Victor Garcia, DVD)
Enough with the classy shit. Let’s get to the real shit. I was thoroughly unprepared for the depraved onslaught of The Toy Box, a somewhat pornographic grindhouse… thing (?) from writer/director Ronald Victor Garcia, who would go on direct the photography on such gorgeous films as Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and One from the Heart. The plot involves a young couple going to a secluded house where a mysterious benefactor encourages his many guests to perform degenerate acts for his amusement, ranging from old-fashioned orgies to staged necrophilia.

Why does he do this? I’m not entirely sure, but I think the uncle, who appears to be dead anyway, may be an alien. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Or not enough. The Toy Box is one of the most perverse and unique cinematic experiences I had all year, whether it’s any good or not. (Possibly not.)

Red Scorpion (1989, dir. Joseph Zito, Blu-ray)
Red Scorpion didn’t make much of an impression on audiences when it was released – at least, not that I can remember – but watching it for the first time today reveals a pretty fascinating relic of Cold War Badass cinema. Dolph Lundgren stars as a Soviet Spetsnaz KGB agent on a mission to infiltrate an anti-Communist revolution in Africa. He spends half the film carrying out his orders, but ultimately turns into a one-man army for truth, justice and the anything-but-Communist way.

For half a century, Americans were terrified that merely brushing up against Communism would convert a patriotic westerner to “the dark side.” Red Scorpion is about the exact opposite, and asks American audiences to root for the bad guy for half the film – a daring proposition – before he finally converts, thanks (in part) to some awe-inspiring xenophobic tirades by M. Emmet Walsh.

Red Scorpion is a little slow in the middle, but it ends with Lundgren offing hundreds of bad guys while wearing little short-shorts, so yes, you will be entertained. But it’s also a curious relic of a bygone age, and a highly unusual interpretation of old-fashioned Reagan Era propaganda filmmaking.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978, dir. Michael Schultz, DVD)
I finally had the chance to see one of the most notoriously awful films in motion picture history this year, and wouldn’t you know? I actually kind of loved it, and on its own damned terms. (The fact that I saw this strange cacophony of repurposed Beatles tunes after I’d seen Adam Shankman’s Rock of Ages, perhaps the worst “jukebox musical” of all time, probably helped a little bit too.)

George Burns narrates a mostly dialogue-free fairy tale story about the title band, who undergo the perils of fame and, ultimately, fight to retrieve their magical musical instruments from evil music moguls and maybe some robots. Alice Cooper does a hallucinogenic cover of “Because” and George Burns tap-dances. Aerosmith performs their awesome version of “Come Together,” and Peter Frampton desperately tries to wail. It’s not “good” by any real stretch, but it’s a unique cinematic experience and a genuinely infectious one that I totally dig, and I think it’s due for re-discovery.

Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1986, dir. Jim McCullough Sr., Netflix Instant Streaming)
Guys… you gotta see this one. Mountaintop Motel Massacre is one of those movies you only put on because, geez, look at that title, and one of those movies you only leave on because, geez, look at this movie. A psycho killer is stalking the tenants of a motel, on a mountaintop (naturally), using a series of hand-dug subterranean tunnels between all the rooms. Snakes and stabbings abound, they way they damn well should.

Mountaintop Motel Massacre came at a time when slasher tropes were familiar, and rigidly adhered to, and yet this movie ignores many of them, feeling fresh – albeit strange, and at least sometimes a little inept – because of it. This right here is the movie in which the sleazebag tricking young women into a three-way is the honest-to-god hero. It’s lowbrow claptrap, but I think you’ll clap all the same.

The Legend of Billie Jean (1985, dir. Matthew Robbins, DVD)
Dave White of Linoleum Knife sat me down and made me watch this Grrl Power explosion of anti-establishment teen angst starring Supergirl’s Helen Slater, and boy, I gotta tell you, I owe him a car. Slater and her crypto-gay little brother Christian Slater are abused by a local bully and his asshole father, and wind up on the lam, chased by a goodhearted but thoroughly inept lawman played by Peter Coyote. Keith Gordon shows up as a rich kid rebelling against his father, who supposedly doesn’t love him but buys the kid a waterslide anyway, from his bedroom window to the swimming pool. Fair is supposedly fair, and I gotta tell you, your very own waterslide is beyond fair by anyone’s standards.

Teen movies feel so fucking conformist nowadays. They used to be about sex, drugs, and sticking it to the same conservative culture that currently forces High School Musical and Twilight down their throats. The Legend of Billie Jean is a little ridiculous, but that’s part of the charm. If it took itself seriously, it’d be Elephant. No, this is the right kind of rebellion: it invites you to sympathize with Billie Jean’s crime spree, but you’d probably never try it at home. Probably.

No comments: