Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Howard S. Berger ""

Monday, March 11, 2013

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Howard S. Berger

Howard S. Berger is a rabid film fanatic and seeker of obscure cinema like myself. His is also documentary filmmaker himself - look for his doc A LIFE IN THE DEATH OF JOE MEEK ( about the U.K.'s first independent pop producer.
I recommend you read about and discover new films at his site:
Look for new posts and upcoming Destructible Man Webisodes in the near future(also look for a DESTRUCTIBLE MAN feature doc sometime down the line).


These two extremely popular comedies by Mario Monicelli are most probably the strongest inspiration (aside from Arthurian legend) for MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975) and many of Terry Gilliam’s solo projects (this may also have been where Spielberg gleaned his “survival up to your neck in shit” moment in SCHINDLER’S LIST from - a film that oddly references its’ most horrifying moments from comic cinema) - but L´ARMATA BRANCALEONE, while hilarious, doesn't weight the jokes as heavily as in GRAIL. Vittorio Gassman is a sight to see as the alternately determined, yet cowardly and roguish knight, who is scooped up by a motley band of would-be brigands in Medieval Italy in order to pull off a land-ownership scam. According to Wikipedia, "the term Armata Brancaleone is still used today in Italian to define a group of badly assembled and useless people." That pretty much says it all. The violence is graphic and brutal, setting a believable backdrop to the (oft-slapstick) comedy but also allowing the humor to create a unique, mature dramatic balance I've not seen in many other films. The characters and performances are priceless. The only surprise is why it took 4 years before Monicelli and company perpetrated the sequel, BRANCALEONE_ALLE_CROCIATE - in every way its predecessor's equal.

PLEINS FEUX SUR L'ASSASSIN (SPOTLIGHT ON A MURDERER, 1961) -- Georges Franju's first film following his classic EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1959). I've wanted to see this for decades and had just about given up hope until it fell into my ecstatic clutches a few weeks ago. This film has it all – a spooky castle, a reading of the will and a group of desperate, greedy relatives who are lined up for murder likes lambs to the slaughter. Franju rejects the poetic melancholy of his earlier success and instead goes for ghoulish chuckles in a TEN LITTLE INDIANS-style mystery. The climax is an especially grotesque hoot.

Sickeningly rare Kazuhiko Yamaguchi collaboration with Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba - the happy marriage behind the ferocious KARATE BULLFIGHTER certainly doesn't disappoint with this stunning cocktail of violence, surreality and raw, unashamed perversity. Examine the elements and decide for yourself if the experience might be worth the energy expenditure to find a copy (the only one that I could unearth was a severely image-cropped tape off of Japanese television from 1993, complete with commercials for Italian-style creamy cup-o-noodles and car polisher): hard-hitting journalism, gang-rape, syphilis, werewolves (who don't look very different from non-werewolves), telekinetic tiger vengeance (WTF?) that bears a bit of a similarity to SCANNERS, surgery torture, telekinetic intestine replacement (WTF?), romance, sex, gunplay and explosions. Pretty amazing from beginning to end and makes a nice one-stop shopping for all your demented Chiba needs.

I'm a huge devotee of actor Robert Hossein but only recently discovered the films of his as director. Why his talents haven't been celebrated and exploited to a much higher degree outside of Europe is a puzzle. This particular film covers a few days in the life of German serial killer Peter Kürten (already essayed by Robert Siodmak and Fritz Lang in THE DEVIL STRIKES AT NIGHT and M, respectively) and is acted in a neo-expressionist style by Hossein. His directorial overlay of physical performance (an extraordinary adoption of pinched, dwarfing body language), florid widescreen camerawork (featuring some of the greatest use of tracking shots I've ever seen) and sound and silence. Hossein's father contributes the jaunty, creepy score that is ever-present as Kürten scuttles from killing to orgiastic killing (the tracking camera forever in pace) – the music practically a physical part of him. Hossein's hideous little monster embodies the political, sexual and emotional perversity of a nation and era engulfed in swift, strangulating decline. Unforgettable.

DON’T MAKE WAVES (1967) – Alexander Mackendrick’s idea of satire always leaned past the cynical dark in a Vincente Minnelli sort-of way -- THE LADYKILLERS, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA, SAMMY GOING SOUTH…so it should be no real surprise that if he was to direct a beach party movie it would turn out more like Sirk’s IMITATION OF LIFE than BEACH BLANKET BINGO. Mackendrick’s last motion picture is a melancholic examination of the vulgarization of the American dream – all the characters are crooked parasites, whorish hucksters or dunderheaded innocents corrupted by a decadent, decaying culture motivated by sex and greed. It’s a contemptuous attack on the Californification of 1960’s drive-in cinema – where bikini-clad bubble butts replaced socially significant drama – and fueled, no doubt on his own continuous betrayal by the film industry. Mackendrick can barely repress his hostility – best represented in the extraordinary, deliriously extended, apocalyptic climax where all his corrupt main characters teeter dangerously on the edge of annihilation as the beach house they confront each other in (a symbol of false status and prestige) tumblesaults off the edge of a cliff in a mudslide – castles built on foundations of sand. A masterpiece as bleak as it is hilarious -- and wonderfully performed by Tony Curtis, Claudia Cardinale, Sharon Tate and Robert Webber. The Douglas Sirk reference may not be mere insinuation – IMITATION OF LIFE was Sirk’s swan song to cinema as well with an ending (a massive funeral march) that is just as titanic, dark and profound as Mackendrick’s. The film seems to have been quite influential in its own right: just take a look at the whole “getting to know you” sequence when Curtis goes back to Cardinale’s beachfront pad -- bears striking resemblance to the introduction of Travolta’s Vincent Vega to Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace in PULP FICTION – even Robert Webber’s relationship to Cardinale mirrors that of Ving Rhames to Thurman in PULP. And the last shot of Curtis and Cardinale crawling from the wreckage and prancing, liberated and alone like a new Adam and Eve, into the surf is one of the most falsely optimistic in cinema history. Makes a great double with George Axelrod’s similarly bitter and brilliant LORD LOVE A DUCK.

YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW (1966) – Francis Ford Coppola’s USC thesis film is a audacious and astute time capsule of coming of age in NYC in the 1960’s – both surreal and cinematic, pulsing with unconventional Richard Lester-ian rhythms (provided by master editor Aram Avakian, later director of the astonishing END OF THE ROAD), Copola’s film (like DON’T MAKE WAVES) is enormously influential: you can see characters, relationships, whole scenes mirrored in De Palma’s GREETINGS and HI MOM!, Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (especially Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy hinging openly on Elizabeth Hartman’s Barbara Darling) and other later NYC productions. The soundtrack by The Lovin’ Spoonful is one of the all-time greatest pop-group contributions to a major motion picture.
Available from Warner Archive: HERE

NATURAL ENEMIES (1979) – the movie tie-in novel of this has been staring at me from across my office for 30 years, but I only just now got around to watching this mesmerizing first narrative feature from REVENGE OF THE NERDS director, Jeff Kanew. This film is a matter-of-fact stare-down into the desiccated soul of a man (played by Hal Holbrook) who, right at the film’s outset, alerts the audience to his plans to execute his wife and three children and then kill himself later that day. So from that point we watch him move through his day – how he spends his intended last hours at work (he is the editor of a successful magazine), how he spends his lunch hour with his friend who is a concentration camp survivor (a beautifully written scene with Jose Ferrer as his friend, who desperately tries to make Holbrook understand the value of living) and then with a group of prostitutes whom he balls, then discusses his existential crisis and murderous plans, and then, an excruciatingly painful attempt by his wife (herself a victim of mental illness and suicidal depression) to change his mind. The seemingly straight-forward ending is pure genius in its ambiguity. Sad, irrepressibly bleak and haunting.
Viewable on YouTube here:

GOING HOME (1971) – A phenomenal, yet ignored, early ‘70’s classic in the Minnelli SOME CAME RUNNING mold. Robert Mitchum drunkenly murders his wife in a jealous rage in front of his 8-year-old son. He goes to prison and, upon release years later, is immediately visited by his intensely conflicted, traumatized, now teenage, son played by Jan Michael Vincent (who just can’t seem to let bygones be bygones and move on). It’s a believable, frightening, complex slice-of-life story with an amazingly original character creation by Mitchum. I firmly believe there would be no Eddie Coyle without his Harry Graham. It’s a brave, bald-faced performance – here’s a guy who admits what he’s done, accepts the responsibility and punishment, but just wants to get on with his life. Vincent is perfect counter-balance as the son who wants to understand the reason why his mother was violently taken away from him and can’t handle the fact that there is no reason. He wants to be his father’s punishment incarnate and ultimately becomes someone who is far more dangerous. I don’t think I blinked once during the entire running time.
Available from Warner Archive: HERE 

YOLANDA AND THE THIEF (1945) - Vincente Minnelli was a director that I had always heard referred to as a master director – alongside Hitchcock, Keaton, Griffith – always understood that he was one of the pioneers of cinema, primarily the musical and dance film. I had seen some of his more holiday worthy films like MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and GIGI while a kid, usually on a TV on Christmas or Thanksgiving while visiting my cousins house after the Godzilla or Kong marathons were finished. But not really until this past year had I seriously dived into the meat and muscle of his work. And not until recently had I known that not everyone finds Minnelli to be such a master… Most reviews are pretty hard on his films, acknowledging his wonderful use of color and ornate set design or his profound psychological use of dance to forward character development, but most times critical of his storylines and outright derisive of the sour nature of his characters and dark undercurrents of the world view. I think the confusion lay with other directors of Arthur Freed’s unit at MGM, like Stanley Donen, whose films catered more to pleasing the mass audiences craving for happy endings and cozy closure… Sure, they looked like Minnelli films, but only after I started moving from one to the next, from drama to musical to comedy and back again, did I see the sharp distinctions between a Minnelli and… well… anybody else’s art. It’s my firm belief that Minnelli never wasted a moment behind the camera, including his last 2 films, ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER and A MATTER OF TIME (butchered at the hands of Sam Arkoff and AIP). No matter what the genre, no matter how opulent or fantastical, a disturbing shade of black runs through every picture, every character, every turn of plot, every word from his character’s mouths. Minnelli was an artist who had many things to say about the primary aspects of human existence: faith, sex, wealth and art. So it was with the recent viewing of his YOLANDA AND THE THIEF, a film that I had always heard referred to as a disaster, that I realized that Minnelli was inarguably one of the most assured architects of the language of film. I am stunned at the opulence of Technicolor and design, the majestic fantasy enhanced by the studio bound exteriors, the unapoligetic corrupt nature of its “romantic” lead (Fred Astaire), the bold statements on how religion can cloud perception of reality and how Minnelli questions the right of the mainstream moviegoing audience to endorse a Cinderella story fantasy where the characters live in great prosperity while taking full advantage of the desperation of the poor. These themes are the ligature of this and all remaining Minnelli films. The dance numbers – two in particular, the near 10 minute Astaire dream sequence in the beginning and the brittle, satirical “Coffee Time” number that closes the film are nightmarish masterpieces of movement, costuming, sound and silence. The veiled insinuations of a homosexual relationship between the wandering duo of thieves, Frank Morgan and Fred Astaire are also handled in a subtle, perversely committed manner by Minnelli (Astaire, pretending to be religious innocent Yolanda’s guardian angel from Heaven so as to swindle her out of her family fortune is referred to as “not being a man” in comic double double meaning) as is the barely suppressed hypersexuality of Yolanda’s aging virgin Auntie (played to comic perfection by Mildred Natwick). It’s all a complex shocker – but so are all of Minnelli’s films, which makes this particular film an excellent starting point for anyone serious enough to understand what Minnelli films are actually concerned with and not for what “musical lovers” necessarily look for. Spun gold.

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