Rupert Pupkin Speaks: June 2013 ""

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mad Max Trilogy Blu-ray

It's hard not to think of post-apocalyptic landscapes without thinking of THE ROAD WARRIOR. I know it's that way for me at least. I first saw the film before I really understood what a director did, or what style was in regards to cinema.It was between George Miller, Sergio Leone, Terry Gilliam and a few others that I started to realize that a director can really create this world that the movie exists in and transport you there. Miller and Gilliam were a couple directors that I first noticed doing crazy stuff with the camera that gave their films this energy and vibrance. In MAD MAX, Miller was doing some ridiculous stuff as far as camera placement and stunts. 

MAD MAX was part of what would later be seen as this wave of crazy Australian
genre/exploitation films to come out in the late 70s and early 80s. It's brethren were martial arts action pictures like THE MAN FROM HONG KONG and insane action movies like TURKEY SHOOT as well as Hitchcockian thrillers like ROAD GAMES. Documentary filmmaker Mark Hartley made a fantastic film on the subject of Australian exploitation movies called NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD back in 2008. If you haven't already seen it, I can't recommend highly enough that you give it a look. I find it a fascinating thing to see where MAD MAX fits into the chronology and the context of this chunk of cinema.


THE ROAD WARRIOR is just one of those films that is bursting at the seams with the essence of cinema. It features an pretty much wordless opening(much like one of my favorite movies - RIO BRAVO) and in general is not heavy on dialogue. George Miller just lets us observe this barren landscape and the human drama unfolding within it. I recently showed my son(14 years old) the film for the first time and he was blown away. "Best. Movie. Ever." was his exact response I think and I was pleased as punch to hear him say it. I just love when a young person can see an older film like this and not be distracted by the fact that it is 'an older film'. No CG fx, slower editing style for the most part, & very little talking. That to me is what cinema and the longevity of a culture of cinema lovers is all about. People who can set aside their preconceived notions about what a movie should be like and just allow movies a chance to impress them. THE ROAD WARRIOR may be more than 30 years old, but it is still as impressive as ever.**


Those immortal words are spoken: "Two men enter. One man leaves." And so begins ThunderDome. As much as Mel Gibson and George Miller are taking cues from Sergio Leone's 'Dollars Trilogy' with the character of Mad Max, hey go so far as to call Max "The Man With No Name" in THUNDERDOME. It was fun to revisit this movie as it had been the longest since I'd seen it of any of the trilogy. I am a big fan of the fantasy films of the 1980s and this film seems a part of that collective on some level. The poster design alone, with Tina Turner's flowing hair and the landscape below conjure up thoughts of 80s fantasy films like KRULL, ICE PIRATES and HEAVY METAL. Tina Turner's presence in the film alone cries out "1980s!" to me. Sure, pop singers have been featured in movies prior to this decade, but I can't help but think of the likes of Grace Jones and Vanity, both oh whom existed cinematically almost solely in the 80s. In the end though, BEYOND THUNDERDOME suffers the same fate as JAWS 2(for example). Its a good but not great post-apocalypse film. Same thing as JAWS 2, which is a solid killer shark movie. What both these films have to contend with is their predecessors being near masterpieces. That's tough for most movies to live down.

All three films look quite nice on Blu-ray(MAD MAX being the lesser of the 3 transfers). The special features included are all ported over from other releases. They include: 
On MAD MAX: An Audio Commentary featuring cinematographer David Eggby, art director Jon Dowding, visual effects supervisor Chris Murray and film historian Tim Ridge, as well as a 25-minute Retrospective Featurette.

On THE ROAD WARRIOR: A Leonard Maltin Introduction and a Audio Commentary with director George Miller and cinematographer Dean Semler;
MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME: only includes the film's Trailer.





**note - This could be completely apocryphal as I've since forgotten where I read it, but I'm pretty sure John Sayles is a big fan of THE ROAD WARRIOR. This is pretty neat to me as the type of films Sayles makes are about as far from something like THE ROAD WARRIOR as one can get. That being said, Sayles did get his start in film writing with exploitation fare like PIRANHA, ALLIGATOR, THE LADY IN RED and THE HOWLING so I guess he's not completely outside the genre world.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Second Sighted: THE LONG RIDERS Blu-ray

Talk about your all-star games. This movie is ridiculous. To my knowledge, never before and never since has a cast of brothers like this been assembled. It's just a brilliant ensemble. You've got Stacy and James Keach(as Frank & Jesse James), David, Robert & Keith Carradine(as Cole, Jim & Bob Younger) and Randy and Dennis Quaid(as Clell & Ed Miller). Outstanding. You've even got Christopher and Nicholas Guest(as Charlie & Bob Ford)!
Walter Hill has made a veritable truckload of fantastic films, but this one seems to get overlooked in the bunch. He made it during that ludicrously fertile period in his career between the mid 70s and early 80s. Hill had a run there as strong as any director's I can think of. Second Sight also released a nice Blu-ray of SOUTHERN COMFORT, which I also picked up when it came out. Their facebook page seemed indicate that they might even be putting out STREETS OF FIRE on Blu-ray at some point in the future. With Twilight Time bringing out THE DRIVER this later month, that'd pretty much close out my MIA on Blu-ray Walter hill wishlist:
http://rupertpupkinspeaks.blogspot.com/2010/12/mia-on-blu-ray-vol-4-walter-hill.html
THE LONG RIDERS is a great little understated western and as I said, I don't believe it gets its proper due. Damn - I mean, for me, all these actors would have to show up in the same room together a play frickin' Yahtzee for all I care. They are all favorites of mine and to see them playing off each other the way they do is just an absolute delight. But when you add to the deal that this story is in fact a great western tale of some notorious outlaws and the tensions between them, it's a surefire winner in my book. It's also the only film I know of in which David Carradine and James Remar have a knife fight. Ooh and I almost forgot the excellent Ry Cooder score!!(listen below)
 I picked up the MGM DVD of this movie when it came out and was of course saddened to see that it had nothing in the way of extra features. If ever a movie begged to have a bit of a story told about it, it's this one. So thankfully the Second Sight disc has a few things to offer us fans. First and foremost is a neat 60 min doc "Outlaw Brothers: The Making of THE LONG RIDERS". It features interviews with Walter Hill, James Keach(who was also a co-writer on the film with brother Stacy) and Robert Carradine. It was just the kind of thing I was looking for and I'm so glad they included it. Other extras include "The Northfield Minnesota Raid: Anatomy of a Scene"(also with Hill, Keach and Carradine)(15 mins) and "Slow Motion: Walter Hill On Sam Peckinpah"(5 Mins). On top of that, the transfer looks great. All in all a great package for Walter Hill fans. Pick it up.
It can be purchased via amazon UK or from Second Sight:
http://www.secondsightfilms.co.uk/latest.php?a=222

Arrow Video: SPIDER BABY Blu-ray and THE VINEYARD on DVD

SPIDER BABY(1968; Jack Hill)
I'm not really a huge fan of the "crazy family" or "house full o' crazies" genre. The TEXAS CHAINSAW films and their knockoffs are not exactly my bag. I appreciate them(esp the 1st two CHAINSAW films), but I don't love them and return to them all that much. I feel like we as viewers are supposed to find some charm in these psychopathic familial relations amidst our disgust, but I can never get past the disgust part. Disgust and annoyance are my typical response to these nutty families. Mostly annoyance.
The Merrye family in SPIDER BABY is quite a loony clan for sure and not without their own vexing nature. However, I find them more tolerable than most such groups partially because they are basically children in adult bodies. Inbred, demented and murderous children, but children nonetheless. When the film begins, we find the two Merrye girls and one Merrye boy are being looked after by their longtime caretaker(played by the wonderful Lon Chaney Jr.) in their dilapidated rural mansion. On this particular day, they are visited by a couple distant relatives and their legal council to evaluate and claim the property as their own. Things do not go well.
This was Jack Hill's debut feature and it's quite memorably weird to say the least. It's not hard to see why this would have developed a decent-sized cult following over the years. One can see the beginnings of Hill's relationship with the great Sid Haig in this movie and he's pretty great in it. Haig would work with Hill in most of the rest of the films he made and was the anchor of his stock company. I know Rob Zombie is a fan of SPIDER BABY(and probably Hill in general) as he cast Sid Haig in a several of his movies and even wrote a song called "Spider Baby". Quentin Tarantino dubbed Jack Hill “the Howard Hawks of exploitation filmmaking”, which is an interesting moniker for sure. Not sure I agree, however I do see what QT is probably trying to say. Hawks made films in all kinds of genre's and did them all pretty well. I do like Hill's work a good deal and recommend that any uninitiated viewer dig into his filmography and enjoy.


Special Features included:
-Original 2.0 Mono Audio (Uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
-High Definition transfer of the feature supervised and approved by director Jack Hill
-English SDH subtitles for deaf and hearing impaired
-Audio commentary featuring Jack Hill and star Sid Haig
-Panel discussion from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences FILM-TO-FILM Festival, recorded September 2012, featuring Jack Hill and stars Quinn K. Redeker and Beverly Washburn
-The Hatching of Spider Baby - Interviews with Jack Hill, Sid Haig, star Mary Mitchel, fan Joe Dante and more on the making of the film
-Spider Stravinsky: The Cinema Sounds of Ronald Stein - The composer of ‘The Terror’ and ‘Attack of the 50 Foot Woman’ among others is remembered by Harlene Stein, Jack Hill, American Cinematheque’s Chris D. and others
-The Merrye House Revisited - Jack Hill revisits the original house that was used as the main location in the film
-Alternate opening title sequence
-Extended scene
-Original Trailer
-Gallery of behind-the-scenes images
-The Host (1960) – Jack Hill’s early short film featuring Sid Haig in his first starring role [30 mins]
-Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
-Collector’s booklet featuring writing on the film by artist and writer Stephen R. Bissette, and an extensive article re-printed from FilmFax: The Magazine of Unusual Film and Television featuring interviews with the cast and crew, illustrated with original stills and artwork



THE VINEYARD(1989; James Hong)
Until somewhat recently, I only knew James Hong as an actor. He's made literally hundreds of films(IMDB list 380 acting credits!), but he will always be Lo-Pan from BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA for me. I saw BIG TROUBLE at just the right age in the summer of 1986 that it made a tremendous impression on me. It's still one of my favorite movies to this very day. And Lo-Pan is one of my favorite villains in cinema because of it. Hong is one of the greatest "that guy" actors of all-time. If an Asian character was needed for almost any film in the 80s and 90s, he was inevitably chosen. For good reason, he is awesome. I've only recently come to discover that Hong was also a director in his own right and made some interesting films. I saw his film TEEN LUST, a  freelwheelin' sex comedy from 1979, for the first time last year. He had directed one other film before that called HOT CONNECTIONS in 1973. From what I can gather, HOT CONNECTIONS was a straight-up adult film which was rated X. It appears that after THE VINEYARD, he only helmed one more feature(a Shannon Tweed vehicle called SINGAPORE SLING). So he clearly worked mainly in the sex cinema world for the most part which is interesting I suppose. Especially for an character actor that has made so many big budget Hollywood films(he's still active today and has a part in the upcoming film R.I.P.D.).
So as this was clearly a bit of a departure from TEEN LUST, I was unsure what to expect. The movie does feature Hong himself groping a woman only minutes in, so I guess he's just all about the sex in his movies. It's definitely a low-budget film sold in part on sexual content and gore.
Hong plays a sort of a mad scientist type dude, complete with bubbling chemistry sets in his lab. He is on a quest for immortality, much like Lo-Pan so it was hard for me not to draw comparisons. The film overall is a mix of elements: Horror, sex and some martial arts. Making blood into wine. And odd and interesting melange.  









Both films can be purchased via Arrow's website here:
http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/

Friday, June 28, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Guy Hutchinson

Guy Hutchinson has worked as a radio talk show host and personality on WHWH and WMGQ radio in NJ and is currently the co-host of the 'Adventure Club' and 'Camel Clutch Cinema' podcasts. Over the years he has interviewed Bernie Kopell, Andy Richter, Bebe Neuwirth, Joe Camp, Robbie Rist and many other entertainment figures. 
A blogger since 2004, Guy blogs on bunchojunk.com and is the sole correspondent for the Ken PD Snydecast Experience. You can find links to all of his work on guyhutchinson.com.



Kansas City Bomber (1972)
This Raquel Welch drama gives a nice behind the scenes look at the workings of a roller derby league. Welch is stunning and gives a decent performance. Her main competition is a feisty skater played by Helena Kallianiotes. Helen steals the film and earned a Golden Globes nomination.


Benji (1974)
This is one of those films I liked as a child that surprised me when I rewatched it as an adult. Benji isn't the funny animal film that hazy childhood memories promised. This is a wonderfully well directed kidnap plot. Joe Camp masterfully allows the action to unfold from the dogs perspective without ever straying into kiddie film territory.
I can say that the climax of the film actually makes me slide to the edge of my seat every time.


Tennessee Johnson (1942)
Before I saw this film I knew two things about Andrew Johnson: he succeeded Abraham Lincoln as president and that he was of a different party and at odds with Lincoln on many issues.
The interesting parts of Johnson's life (and this film) mostly come before he becomes president. Johnson was born into poverty and learned to read and write as an adult. Van Heflin does a fine job bringing the character to life.


Cobb (1994)
Ty Cobb is almost universally regarded as the greatest baseball player that ever lived. Yet his story wasn't told on screen until 1994. It's a great movie about a very troubled human being. Tommy Lee Jones plays the part BIG but never goes into parody in a part that could have in the wrong hands.
The film is based on a book by Al Stump who was hired by Cobb to write his biography. There are some people who dispute parts of Stump's story but regardless Ty Cobb is a cinematic character and the film shouldn't be overlooked.

Fitzcarraldo (1982)
If you were looking for the actor equivalent of Ty Cobb it just might be Klaus Kinski. Kinski was an ill tempered actor who was notoriously difficult to work with and may have been the greatest actor to ever live.
Here Kinski is paired with frequent collaborator Werner Herzog in a tale about rubber baron who tries to have his crew pull a steamship across land to access a rubber rich territory.


Rascal (1969)
Based on the enduring book by Sterling North, this Disney film is about a boy spending time with a pet raccoon. The book had the subtitle "A Memoir of a Better Era" and it certainly describes the sweet nostalgia of this movie.

Bill (1981)
One of my favorite childhood films, this was made for TV and stars Mickey Rooney as a mentally challenged adult and the struggles he faces day to day.
It's a quality performance that rises above the film.


Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
A wonderful film about the relationship between a dad and his chess whiz son. Joe Mantenga is great as the father who has to deal with his son's striking talent and how to encourage it without having his kid lose his childhood.


Marvin's Room (1996)
An all star cast featuring Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Diane Keaton and Robert De Niro lend tremendous performances in this simple story that started as an award winning play.
The film also was the first film to use a Walt Disney World theme park as a backdrop for a few scenes in the film. Few drama's can boast a 'hilarious cameo by Goofy.'


The Boy Who Could Fly (1986)
This touching story about an autistic child is buoyed by great supporting performances by Fred Savage and Fred Gwynne.


The King of Kings (1927)
This wonderful version of the Easter story is overshadowed by the 1961 remake. It's a shame because this film has some groundbreaking moments and a great performance from H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower from It's a Wonderful Life) as Jesus.
This film holds the distinction of being the first film shown at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.


Thursday, June 27, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Jim Healy

Jim Healy is Director of Programming at the Cinematheque at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as Director of Programming of the Wisconsin Film Festival. From 2001-2010, he was Assistant Curator, Exhibitions in the Motion Picture Department at George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. Prior to that, he was a Film Programmer for the Chicago International Film Festival. Jim is also currently the American Programming Correspondent for the Torino Film Festival in Turin, Italy.
UW Cinematheque is on Twitter here:
https://twitter.com/uwcinematheque

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I’m not even sure that “drama” is a genre. When Blockbuster Video was still around, their shelves marked “Drama” were the places where you found all of the movies that weren’t westerns, comedies, horror or action movies. So, this is a list of movies that would probably end up on those “Drama” shelves at Blockbuster, but really, they’re just films that move me and are told in exciting styles. They’re also movies that should be better known.


CHILD OF DIVORCE (1946, Richard Fleischer). This was the frequently underestimated Fleischer’s first feature film, made for Sid Rogell’s low-budget unit at RKO. At 63 minutes, it’s a breathlessly efficient and heartbreaking portrait of two selfish parents (Regis Toomey & Madge Meredith) and the emotional pain they inflict on their daughter (9-year old Sharyn Moffett) when the wife’s infidelity leads to divorce. Moffett, who was being groomed by RKO to become the next Shirley Temple or Margaret O’Brien, is quite good and ultimately, her performance is why the film works. The writer and producer is the accomplished Lillie Hayward, and she and Fleischer and Moffett teamed again the following year for another RKO cheapie, BANJO. That one’s not half bad either even though Fleischer writes pretty disparagingly of it in his memoirs. More underrated Fleischer dramas: VIOLENT SATURDAY, ARENA, 10 RILLINGTON PLACE, THE NEW CENTURIONS. I could go on.


HOUSEKEEPING (1987, Bill Forsyth). Forsyth’s moving and extremely faithful adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s great novel has more than its share of absurd or light moments, but it’s the most melancholic of all the films in Forsyth’s decidedly melancholic oeuvre, so I tend to not think of it as a comedy as I would all of his other offbeat features. The story is set in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1950s, where two orphaned sisters (played by Sara Walker and Andrea Burchill) come under the care of their whimsical, charming, but decidedly unstable aunt Sylvie (the role of a lifetime for Christine Lahti). As Sylvie’s eccentricities and neglectful behavior increase, one of the girls makes a break for normalcy, while the other finds herself drawn more and more into the whirlpool of her aunt’s madness. This is pretty haunting stuff, made all the more effective by Forsyth’s great use of location and attention to detail in the period setting. It got made during a very brief period when David Putnam (who had produced Forsyth’s best known film, LOCAL HERO) was head of production at Columbia Pictures. It barely got released even in Chicago where it received rave reviews from Roger Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum. You can buy it now on an MOD and you should. Here’s a great idea: somebody hire Forsyth to adapt one of Robinson’s other novels.


THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS (1971, Robert Mulligan) Of all the late 60s/early 70s studio movies that try to capture the Zeitgeist of the counter-cultural movement in the U.S. (GETTING STRAIGHT, THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT, et al), this one is maybe my second favorite after ZABRISKIE POINT. A disillusioned university student from a wealthy family (Michael Sarrazin) accidentally hits a pedestrian on the streets of New York on a rainy night and he finds that his social position cannot entirely extricate him from a jail sentence. What he also discovers is that prison is not entirely different from life on the outside, which leads him to a final and surprising act of defiance. Never heavy-handed and beautifully acted (the cast also includes E.G. Marshall, Barbara Hershey, William Devane and a memorable Arthur Hill), this is a genuinely offbeat and unpredictable movie about a society on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Mulligan was on a roll when he made this one, having come off the excellent western THE STALKING MOON and just about to make three more excellent 70s movies (THE OTHER, SUMMER OF ’42 and THE NICKEL RIDE). Sony inexplicably issued this as one of their “Martini Movies” on DVD a few years ago. Whatever. I’m glad it’s available.


THE MIND READER (1933, Roy Del Ruth) This might be my favorite of all Warner Bros. pre-code movies, and that’s saying a lot. As such, it has quite a bit of humor and is told in the typically breakneck WB house style, so it frequently feels like a thriller, but the situation is primarily serious, so I guess it could be considered a “drama.” The brilliant, fast-talking Warren William has the greatest of all his morally ambiguous leading roles as the title character, a carny huckster who falls in love and goes straight for a while, but then falls back into his con artist ways. You’re right if you think this sounds like NIGHTMARE ALLEY and if you’re a fan of that one, you’re gonna love this one too. That wonderful and ubiquitous WB character actor, Allen Jenkins, delivers the marvelous last line.

Also worthy of more attention:


TESTAMENT (1983, Lynne Littman)
THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW (1956, Douglas Sirk)
LILY TURNER (1933, William Wellman)
REMEMBER MY NAME (1978, Alan Rudolph)
I WALK THE LINE (1970, John Frankenheimer)
LADYBUG, LADYBUG (1963, Frank Perry)
THE COBWEB (1955, Vincente Minnelli)
WELCOME HOME SOLDIER BOYS (1971, Richard Compton)
KING OF THE HILL (1993, Steven Soderbergh)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Jason Hyde

Jason Hyde is a top shelf cinephile. He was kind enough to write up an underrated comedies list for my last blog series. Read it here:
http://rupertpupkinspeaks.blogspot.com/2013/03/favorite-underrated-comedies-jason-hyde.html

A Woman of Paris (1923)
Charlie Chaplin's superb drama caused a lot of head-scratching and famously flopped in its day, but proved very influential in the years since its release. Michael Powell was an admirer, and it Ernst Lubitsch cited it as a direct influence. It also was the film that really established Adolphe Menjou's image as the impeccably-dressed rake, and any movie that does that has to be worthwhile. One thing it didn't do was establish Edna Purviance as a leading lady outside of Chaplin comedies. And that's a shame, because she's really great in this film. In fact, everything about A Woman of Paris is great. It's beautifully shot, incredibly well-written, and has a tone that's surprisingly modern and unsentimental for Chaplin at this stage of his career. But it most definitely was not what audiences wanted from Charlie Chaplin in 1923, and he stayed away from drama until Limelight nearly 30 years later. Edna Purviance remained on Chaplin's payroll until her death in 1958, but never starred in another film that anybody saw. Chaplin produced a second film for her called A Woman of the Sea, directed by Josef von Sternberg, but it was apparently destroyed before it was released.

The Great Gabbo (1929)
Gloriously bonkers backstage melodrama from James Cruze starring the incomparable Erich von Stroheim at his most unhinged. Stroheim plays the title character, an ill-tempered, domineering, struggling ventriloquist whose shabby treatment of his wife drives her away from him. Afterwards, they both achieve success on their own and end up playing the same big revue show. Gabbo hopes to re-unite with her and tries to woo her through his dummy Otto. It does not go well. There's a definite strangeness to a lot early talkies from this period, but even keeping that in mind, The Great Gabbo is one strange movie, featuring great chunks of untranslated German, lots of scenes that stick around just a bit too long, and some seriously bizarre musical numbers. The spider-themed "Caught in the Web of Love" number has to be seen to be believed. Then there's Otto's song about dropping his lollipop on the ground, with its catchy refrain of 'All oooover icky" that will stay with you for days. The musical numbers were originally shot in color, but only exist now in black and white. What I wouldn't give to get my hands on that footage.

This Day and Age (1933)
I've never had much time for Cecil B. DeMill's epics. They have their moments, but I've always found most of them pretty flat and not terribly engaging. However, I have lots of time for DeMille's Madame Satan, with its decadent party aboard a crashing Zeppelin finale. And I have even more time for This Day and Age, in which a group of high school boys, led by Richard Cromwell, learn just how inefficient their local justice system is during a Boys Week project. They want justice for a murdered friend, but the local crime boss has everything rigged in his favor. So they form their own vigilante squad and take the law into their own hands in a big way, kidnapping the crime boss and dangling him over a pit of live rats. These kids do not mess around. It's a bit like watching The Bowery Boys turn into Charles Bronson. This Day and Age is admittedly a bit of an idealogical mess, but I'd be lying if I said that it didn't make vigilante justice look like a load of fun.

Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)
Jack Webb is mostly remembered for his groundbreaking radio and TV work, but all of his films are worth your time. 1954's Dragnet film predictably gets the most attention, but Webb's real masterpiece is this story of jazz musicians getting mixed up with organized crime in 1920s Kansas City. Like Dragnet, Pete Kelly's Blues was also a radio show and a TV show, but unlike Dragnet it wasn't a hit in any format, and the film version has never really found much of an audience, which is really sad when you consider what it's got going for it. Webb was a lifelong jazz fanatic, so Pete Kelly's Blues is filled with terrific music. It's also got gorgeous costumes and Technicolor photography and some fine performances from actors like Lee Marvin, Andy Devine (very different from his usual comical western sidekick shtick), Janet Leigh, and the always-brilliant Edmond O'Brien. But the best work is turned in by singer Peggy Lee in her film debut as a troubled singer forced on Webb's band by O'Brien's gangster. Lee was nominated for an Oscar and really deserved to win. If I have a gripe with Pete Kelly's Blues, it's that Jack Webb himself is occasionally a bit too stiff in the title role. Every time I watch this one, I find myself wondering what it would be like if Webb and Lee Marvin had switched roles. It's not that Webb's bad, but Lee Marvin is Lee Marvin, and the movie could use a bit more of him.

Lilith (1964)
A genuine masterpiece from director Robert Rossen, from those long-ago days when major studio films were getting all arty and French New Wave-influenced (see also: John Frankenheimer's Seconds). Warren Beatty does his best Brando as an ex-soldier who goes to work at a secluded and exclusive sanatarium where he meets and falls for a very disturbed woman played by Jean Seberg, who is incredible. Their relationship is a rocky one, to say the least. Also on hand, in probably his best performance, is Peter Fonda as another patient under Lilith's spell, as well as a young Gene Hackman and Kim Hunter. Plus there's a haunting jazz score by the underrated Kenyon Hopkins, luminous cinematography that's not so much black and white as many shades of grey and white, and lots of memorably arty flourishes (hand-held camerawork, ambiguous ending). This is simply one of the most beautiful and unsettling films I've ever seen.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Laird Jimenez

Laird worked in video stores and film archives and is now a video editor for Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas.
Follow him on Twitter at @Pobrecito and Letterboxd:
http://letterboxd.com/pobrecito/

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Park Row(1952; Samuel Fuller)
Sam Fuller's love letter to the era of journalism that shaped his professional life. It's the Citizen Kane of newspaper movies (ha-ha. But seriously, Park Row should be considered in the same esteem).


Confessions of a Police Captain(1971; Damiano Damiani)
Damiano Damiani slips through the cracks of esteemed Italian genre directors for not being particularly lurid or stylish, which is a shame because he's extremely gifted. Confessions of a Police Captain I watched expecting a violent thriller such as those directed by Fernando di Leo, Umberto Lenzi and Enzo Castellari (to name a few fan favorites), but instead got a tense political drama that is more comparable to Hands Over the City than The French Connection (though later Damiani directed a movie with the English title The Pizza Connection). If for no other reason, watch it to see Martin Basalm and Franco Nero acting together.


Fellini's Casanova(1976; Federico Fellini)
Not usually considered one of Fellini's best, but it's my favorite. Fellini frames the Casanova story as an Italian sex comedy, but then turns it into tragedy by reimagining Casanova's exploits not as romantic, but pathetic. All he wants to do is to be respected for his intellect and to be loved in return, but all the world wants from his is to "do it" on command. Typically masterful compositions and design by Fellini and one of my favorite Nino Rota scores as well.


Emma Mae(1976; Jamaa Fanaka)
Jamaa Fanaka is more widely known for his wild, genre output like Welcome Home Brother Charles, Street Wars, and the Penitentiary series, but this is a straight up social-realist drama. Exploitatively re-titled Black Sister's Revenge, this movie about the developing social conscience of a rural black girl as she experiences the racial and gender biases of the big city must have really disappointed those hoping for something like Coffy or Foxy Brown. There is a tiny bit of violence and baddassery, but far more screentime is given to watching family members interact at a kitchen table or in a bedroom in a very natural manner. Outside of Killer of Sheep, very few movies from this period grant this respectful view of African Americans' domestic and social life. The fact that this is able to do so and still have a badass heroine makes it both unique and invaluable.


On the Bowery(1956; Lionel Rogosin)
Blends fiction and reality in a way that makes it formally way ahead of its time. Even though it's set in the very real world, it seems to take place on a planet populated only by drunk men who are all over the age of 50. You can smell the spilled beer and urine. Somehow it's not totally depressing.


The End of Man (Finis Hominis)(1971; Jose Mojica Marins)
Jose Mojia Marins is best known for his character Coffin Joe, but in this odd departure from horror (and porn), Marins invents a messiah character who appears from the sea and goes around Brazil performing miracles (and exposing hypocrisy and arbitrariness of values in contemporary society). If you like the sections of Coffin Joe movies and interviews when he gets all preachy, you'll love this.
(available on DVD here: 
http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Coffin-Joe-Collection-Repackaged/dp/B001U3EOM6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1372164352&sr=8-1&keywords=coffin+joe)


Five dramas with Jeff Bridges that are underrated: Fat City, Cutter's Way, Bad Company, The Iceman Cometh, and Winter Kills.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Warner Archive Grab Bag: THE MERRY WIDOW, THE UNFINISHED DANCE, A GUY NAMED JOE, EXECUTIVE SUITE

THE MERRY WIDOW(1934; Ernst Lubitsch)
From Warner Archive's site:
"Jeanette MacDonald is Sonia, a bubbly widow who owns 52% of every cow and cowtown in the tiny European country of Marshovia. When she relocates to glittery Paris, suave ladies’ man Captain Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) sets out in hot pursuit. His mission: avert his homeland’s financial ruin by bringing Sonia back on the wings of love. But hang on tight, Danilo. Love always flies a delirious course when legendary director Ernst Lubitsch, known for sophisticated wit and a style affectionately dubbed as “the Lubitsch touch” is at the helm. A frothy, high-spirited gem based on Franz Lehar’s operetta, The Merry Widow set the standard for musicals to come. And it confirmed what MGM’s top brass already knew: Jeanette MacDoanld was a major star. So enjoy the rapturous music, the sparkling dialogue and the swirling “Merry Widow Waltz.” You’ll have to look far and wide for a better comic operetta than this."

I first saw this film about 4 years ago. I remember this because it was the first film I watched, whilst holding my then infant daughter(only a few days old if I recall) in my arms. Though she'd never remember that, I still consider it the first film she and I shared so it has a very special place for me. It was hard to see the movie at that time(this release is its premiere DVD release) and I had dvr'd it off of TCM. I was going through a big Lubitsch resurgence at the time so I was excited to check it out.
I have to admit that I have this thing with Maurice Chevalier. Whenever I see him, I can't help but hear THE ARISTOCATS theme song for at least a minute. This is also linked to my little girl who became a big fan of that film when she was 2 or 3. It may have been one of the first films I ever actually showed to her. Just now realizing the Chevalier connection. Anwyay - I am, for the most part, not a huge fan of Lubitsch's musicals. I much prefer his straight comedies, which are some of my favorite films of all time. His musicals are certainly pleasant enough(check out the Eclipse box set to see what I mean), but just not my bag. That being said, this one is too crazy on the musical numbers so it's okay. And Lubitsch's romance films often have this wonderful light effervescence to them. Like a glass of champagne, they bubble over with affectionate adoration and cleverness. Characters often go to great lengths to court each other in his films and it really is refreshing. At one point in THE MERRY WIDOW, Chevalier declares to Jeanette MacDonald, "Do you know I've been feeding your dogs with the finest imported salami just to get a quiet glimpse of you?". It's as if the world was so much more of a romantic place during Lubitsch's time. That's not to say that there's no romance left today, but it does seem to have been a more powerful force back then. Maybe in this film, some of what the characters do might be called "stalking" by today's standards, but it does make one long for a more innocent, less litigious time(when trespassing and bribery were much more cute). Lubitsch really brings a wonderful vibe to the idea of the "pursuit" of a lady.
You know who fits perfectly into Lubitsch's comedic paradigm? Edward Everett Horton. See DESIGN FOR LIVING, TROUBLE IN PARADISE or BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE to get an idea of just how well he fits. 
There just is no real equivalent to Edward Everett Horton nowadays. He frequently plays 'the square' character in a lot of comedies and he does it impeccably. His voice(as we all remember from 'Fractured Fairytales') and manner are quite difficult to surpass. He is truly a one-of-a-kind fella and an actor whose very appearance in just about any film tends to elevate it for me. 
I know Wes Anderson has said that he's drawn some influence from Lubitsch and I feel like he must be a big EEH fan as he often seems to have characters that live in his wheelhouse threaded throughout his movies. He has specifically sited Lubitsch and Wilder as influence on his upcoming film, GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, saying that it's "inspired partly by Hollywood Europe, and also by some European writers around that time" -- such as fare by Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder -- Anderson reveals a few movies that are inspiring him. "Yes, like 'To Be or Not to Be,' the Lubitsch with Carole Lombard, that Europe which is not made in Europe at all," Anderson said about the kind of world he's trying to capture. "Or 'Shop Around the Corner'. Or did you ever see 'Love Me Tonight,' the one Rouben Mamoulian made with Maurice Chevalier? I'm not a big musical fan, but it's a wonderful one." 
(Quote taken from this Indiewire article from last year: http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/wes-anderson-says-grand-budapest-hotel-takes-place-85-years-ago-inspired-by-the-films-of-ernst-lubitsch-billy-wilder-20121031)
 It just warms my heart to know there are filmmakers out there still taking cues from the comedic genius that is Ernst Lubitsch and fans of his will certainly enjoy this film and be happy to finally be able to own it on dvd.




THE UNFINISHED DANCE(1947; Henry Koster)
To call this film "THE RED SHOES Jr." or something along those lines is a bit reductive certainly, but it sort of captures how I feel about it. Dance/ballerina films aren't particularly my bag, but both this one and THE RED SHOES(obviously) are pretty great(and have lovely color palettes). It's the story of a young girl who wants to be a ballerina and is obsessed with one particular dancer to the point of sabotaging another to help her out. The sabotage is accidental, but the story deals with the young girl's guilt over it and the aftermath for two the professional ballerinas that were impacted. It's a wonderful, emotional story and one that is built upon some nice dramatic underpinnings. It was released one year before THE RED SHOES, and though I can't imagine it was seen by the Archers while they were working their film, I'd love to think it was an influence. Margaret O'Brien(THE SECRET GARDEN, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS) is one of those child actors that goes beyond tolerable to quite splendid in her performance here. I've been watching a lot of Freddie Bartholomew films lately and I'd put her in a class with him in this film. Bartholomew has a real knack for portraying rich, spoiled brat characters that become sympathetic throughout the course of a given film(CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS, LORD JEFF) and O'Brien does something similar here. Danny Thomas and Cyd Charisse also do very well in the movie. It's really a moving and marvelous story over all. Has that almost 'fairytale feeling' about it. It's quite touching. An underappreciated classic.
Lou Lumenick did a great write-up of it for the NY Post here:
http://www.nypost.com/p/blogs/movies/dvd_extra_margaret_brien_blake_the_S9BkF6tqotadz9XdRXn4MK#axzz2WVB7EaaI

 


A GUY NAMED JOE(1944; Victor Fleming)
It's hard for me not to feel a Frank Capra vibe about Victor Fleming's A GUY NAMED JOE. Maybe it's the examination of an afterlife or guardian angels or even the presence of Lionel Barrymore, but it's a pleasant familiarity. The other familiarity comes from the fact that Steven Spielberg remade A GUY NAMED JOE as the 1989 movie ALWAYS with Richard Dreyfuss and John Goodman. I've never been a huge fan of ALWAYS honestly, so GUY NAMED JOE had a bit of its work cut out for it. In this original version, Spencer Tracy plays a hotshot bomber pilot who pushes his luck one too many times and ends up dead. Once dead, he finds himself in the afterlife and assigned to go back to earth as a sort of "guardian angel" for young pilots. He leaves behind his high flyin' pilot gal played by Irene Dunne.
Spencer Tracy certainly gives this movie a boost. Especially because I've seen some great Tracy performances recently including his turn in the outstanding adventure yard CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS(which was also directed by Victor Fleming). Tracy has this amazing ability with delivering dialogue. It just feels so real and natural coming out of his mouth. In the commentary track for BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, John Sturges discussed one of Tracy's acting techniques. He said Tracy would memorize his bits of dialogue and then not look at the script, especially the lines that other characters spoke to him. I guess this way, it would all feel really fresh when he heard it and his reaction would be pretty genuine. It shows and I always watch him interact with other actors now with that in mind. 
Irene Dunne is quite enchanting. I've loved her ever since I saw THE AWFUL TRUTH for the first time. She's lovely. She has this gentle way about her here combined with a sassy feisty-ness. She feels a bit like Howard Hawks character. 
I must admit that although A GUY NAMED JOE is heralded as a beloved classic, I really didn't connect to it as I'd hoped to.  As much as I adore Tracy and Dunne, I couldn't buy into their love story. That's pretty key. I know there must be many many folks out there who do and will enjoy this film more than I did so I can't help but recommend that people seek it out. Especially because it hasn't been on DVD until now.I've always been fond of the way the films of the 1930s, 40s and 50s handle this kind of a fantasy story. This particular film makes me think of the Archer's greatly superior A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. Another film it brings to mind is another Victor Fleming joint, TEST PILOT(sadly not on dvd yet). TEST PILOT features Clark Gable in the hotshot pilot role and Spencer Tracy as his best friend. The incomparable Myrna Loy is Gable's wife. Great film indeed. 

EXECUTIVE SUITE(1954; Robert Wise)
Fascinating drama centering around a large furniture manufacturing firm and the turmoil it is thrown into when the company's president drops dead on the street suddenly. Directed by Robert Wise and scripted by Ernest Lehman(NORTH BY NORTHWEST, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS), it's a well made movie with a stellar cast. The executive staff of the Tredway Corp includes William Holden, Walter Pidgeon, Frederich March(as a supreme dick), Dean Jagger and Paul Douglas. Barbara Stanwyck is Julia Tredway, the founder's daughter, who also has a controlling interest. They even have Shelley Winters on the phones. 
It really is a surprisingly interesting thing to watch the scenario play out as the Tredway execs fight amongst themselves and scramble to elect a new president and try to avoid plummeting stock values and being bought out. I couldn't help but think briefly of THE HUDSUCKER PROXY for a moment near the beginning(as both films begin with the death of a company president), but the similarities don't go too much further than that.
One interesting bit of trivia about the movie is that it has no musical score(which is quite uncommon for Hollywood productions of this ilk). It also features a pretty neat opening POV-type shot, which had certainly been done before, but it is used to great dramatic effect in this movie.
Included on this disc is a commentary track with director Oliver Stone wherein he discusses many things including EXECUTIVE SUITE's influence on his own film WALL STREET.
Speaking of the film's influence, Matthew Weiner has specifically talked about how it was a partial inspiration for his show MAD MEN as well.

All the above films are available as MOD DVDs from Warner Archive: HERE