Rupert Pupkin Speaks: August 2013 ""

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Arrow Video - DERANGED on Blu-ray

From frame one, DERANGED has the look and feel old Wisconsin home movie footage. Creepy backwoods stuff. Very fitting as it is based on the life of Ed Gein(like PSYCHO and several other films). It even has a warning at the beginning delivered by a journalist declaring the film as something not for the faint of heart.
Roberts Blossom plays Ezra Cobb here, the Ed Gein stand-in. This is particularly creepy to me as my biggest memory of him is from HOME ALONE where he played the shovel-wielding misunderstood neighbor to Macaulay Culkin's family. Makes me wonder if John Hughes was playing some sort of joke by casting Blossom in that role at the time. Was Hughes a big DERANGED fan? If so, kudos to him for casting based on that. That's pretty funny in this macabre way. My other big memory of Blossom was of his role in ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ. He plays a guy who cuts off his own fingers in one of the movies most disturbing scenes. He's a very solid character actor, but he was given few opportunities to play a lead role like this. It's a very effective portrayal of a sick mind. The familiar Norman Bates-y talking to himself in his mother's voice is pretty unsettling. The movie has a few very disturbing scenes. One has Ezra bring an unsuspecting waitress back to his house and she is beyond terrified to find corpses and Ezra himself wearing a mask made of human flesh. Following this scene with a truly dark "dinner table" scene works very well as far as making one's skin crawl. The choice to use the journalist 'narrator' character and have him appear throughout the film is an odd one. Makes it feel like a Twilight Zone or something with a Rod Serling-type popping up intermittently to make comments and 'tell the tale'. It's a decent horror film and the performance by Roberts Blossom as well as the effects(by Tom Savini) make it somewhat memorable.

Special Features included on this Arrow Video Blu-ray include:
-High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of the unrated version, featuring the infamous ‘brain-scooping scene’, available uncut in the UK for the first time!
-Audio commentary with special effects artist Tom Savini
-Introduction to the film by Savini.

-"A Blossoming Brilliance":
Scott Spiegel (Intruder, Evil Dead II) speaks about Deranged star Roberts Blossom and the lasting legacy of this gore-soaked gem.
-"Ed Gein: From Murder to Movies" -
Laurence R. Harvey (The Human Centipide II) discusses the lurid legacy of the Wisconsin serial killer and the secrets of portraying a cinematic psychopath.
-"The Wages of Sin" –
Making of featurette comprising newly transferred 16mm production footage plus an archive interview with director Jeff Gillen.

This disc can be purchased via Amazon UK or Arrow's Website:
http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/index.php?tle_id=770&art_id=44

THE FUGITIVE 20th Anniversary Blu-ray

Wait movie, you're saying that Han Solo is getting the death penalty? Indiana Jones is guilty of murdering his wife? These were thoughts that were going through my head when I first saw THE FUGITIVE in the summer of 1993. This film was quite an even for me at the time. The summer of '93 was the summer before I went to college. I was a big time movie fan by this time as I had worked in a video store since my junior year of high school. Movies had started to obsess me. And when I saw a damned good one in the theater it was always memorable.
I had become vaguely aware of Tommy Lee Jones prior to this movie, but THE FUGITIVE was a true introduction to what the man was capable of. He blew me away with his performance here and has stayed on my radar ever since. And Harrison Ford? How could I not be totally engaged by a movie that put him in a precarious situation like this. The interplay between Jones and Ford is truly iconic and memorable. They are brilliant together. THE FUGITIVE was very much a Hitchcock-type thriller and had a lot if the earmarks of Hitch's films before I was really aware of those earmarks. It wouldn't be for another year that I would start digging deep into Hitchcock's filmography. I really came to love his stories of everyday people thrust into harrowing situations. Anyway, suffice it to say that I loved THE FUGITIVE when I saw it that summer and it has continued to hold up upon repeat viewings over the past 20 years. It is absolutely one of the best films of the 1990s in my opinion.
Warner's new Anniversary edition sports a new transfer and it looks great, especially in comparison to the old Blu-ray release. Well worth the upgrade for that alone, but WB has also thrown in some new special features to make it more worth your while. The big one is a great new retrospective called 'The Fugitive: 'Thrill of the Chase'. This 28 minute featurette is very solid in that it includes interviews with all the major players on the actor side and on the filmmaker side. The featurette discusses each of the principal actors involved and there are some fun anecdotes and other production info that make the piece an enjoyable view. It's a lovely tribute and will be thankful to have it. Also new to this disc is the original pilot for the 2000 TV series of the same name.

The disc also includes the extras which were previously available on the first Blu-ray edition of the film:
- a commentary track with director Andrew Davis and Tommy Lee Jones.
-an introduction by Harris0n Ford and Andrew Davi.
-a production overview/behind-the-scenes called 'On The Run with THE FUGUTIVE'.
-a breakdown of the making of the train sequence in the film.

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Richard Winters

Richard Winters runs Scopophilia, a blog covering neglected movies from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Highly recommended! http://scopophiliamovieblog.com/ 
He also did an underrated comedies list for me recently:
http://rupertpupkinspeaks.blogspot.com/2013/05/favorite-underrated-comedies-richard.html
Find him on twitter here:
https://twitter.com/scopophiliamb


Save the Tiger (1973)
Although just about any movie fan is familiar with legendary actor Jack Lemmon few people know or have seen the film that he won the Academy Award for as best actor, which is this one. It is an interesting and penetrating look at two men whose business is losing money and they contemplate committing arson in order to collect the insurance money. The theme though is really about middle-age and dealing with all the broken dreams, compromises, and cynicism that comes along with it. Jack Gilford is great in support as Lemon’s business partner as both men reflect and long to go back to a more innocent age, but find life just won’t let them. The scene where Lemon has a sexual tryst with a young hippie chick that he picks up and finds that he is unable to connect with her in any intellectual way as well as coming to terms with the shock at just how out-of-touch he is with the younger generation is memorable.


Into Thin Air (1985)
From my perspective the best dramas are usually those based on actual events and this film is definitely on top. It is a made-for-TV movie that I saw over 30 years ago when it originally aired and it still makes a strong impact with me today. It is the story about a young man traveling from Canada to the States in order to attend college in Colorado. Along the way his van breaks down in a desolate region of Nebraska. This was before the advent of cellphones so he calls his family from a pay phone to tell them the situation and that some kindly strangers have agreed to take him to a nearby service station and then that is the last time anyone sees or hears of him. The police investigate it, but can find no leads and eventually the case becomes cold. His mother, which is brilliantly played by Ellen Burstyn, goes on a relentless crusade to find answers and hires a private investigator to look for clues. Initially he meets a lot of dead ends, but eventually he’s able to break the case open. The way he does this and finding out what actually happened to the kid is riveting, edge-of-your-seat stuff.


King of the Marvin Gardens (1972)
Ellen Burstyn also scores in this neglected drama playing a highly-strung woman who ends up going over-the-edge. This film is also unique in that it features Jack Nicholson in atypically restrained performance wearing glasses and acting almost like a nerd. Bruce Dern also stars as Nicholson’s scheming brother and with his unique acting style he makes any movie that he is in worth seeking out. The movie also features the pretty Julia Ann Robinson who tragically died in a house fire shortly after the film was made and never appeared in anything else. Yet it is Burstyn and her major meltdown at the end that leaves the strongest impact and one that stays with you long after it is over.


Straight Time (1978)
In Dustin Hoffman’s long and storied career this film seems to get lost in the shuffle, which is unfortunate because it is one of his best. It is about a parolee getting out of jail and trying to go straight and based on the novel by Edward Bunker who spent almost his whole life in and out of jail and wrote a novel about it while in prison. If anything this is a great testament to how hard it is for criminals to go straight and how easy it is to fall back to their criminal lifestyle because the system is pretty much stacked against them from the beginning. M. Emmet Walsh as Hoffman’s smothering parolee office who seems intent at catching Hoffman doing something wrong so he can be thrown back into the slammer is memorable particularly the scene where he gets stripped naked by Hoffman and handcuffed to a fence in complete view of a busy L.A. Freeway.


J.W. Coop (1971)
Many younger audiences know actor Cliff Robertson for his role as Ben Parker in the Spiderman movies but few may realize that he had a long and successful career well before he appeared in those movies and in 1968 even won the Academy Award for best actor. This film in which he also wrote and directed is a major tour-de-force and deals with a man released from prison after 8 years and trying to get back into the rodeo circuit, but finding that society and the business have changed drastically. Gritty, somber and moody this film really hits the target in all areas from beginning to end.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - James Napoli

James Napoli is a writer, award-winning filmmaker and a film educator. As a humorist, he is the author of The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm, blogs on the Huffington Post, and is the creator of the Internet self-help parody persona Mr. Paul Maul. You can visit www.jamesnapoli.com for more info.
On Twitter here:
https://twitter.com/JamesNapoli
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Well, thanks again to Rupert for allowing me to contribute to his ever-growing lists of awesomeness. Despite my long history with comedy, I love (and write) a lot of drama, so to be asked to pick a few underrated movie dramas was particular satisfying.


THE MAN FROM ELYSIAN FIELDS (2001)
The late George Hickenlooper directed a noir homage not so much in the Double Indemnity or Out of the Past vein, but more akin to Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, the 1950 Humphrey Bogart vehicle about an embittered writer caught up in something that threatens to consume him. The script for Elysian Fields came seemingly out of nowhere from Phillip Jayson Lasker, a writer and producer of sitcoms like The Golden Girls who clearly had a lot more inside him than television could contain. And Lasker mines his story of a failed writer drawn into a web of sex and cynicism for all the Lonely Place vibe it can muster.

Andy Garcia plays Byron Tiller, a happily-married but broke novelist who, against his better judgment becomes a gigolo in a company run by Luther Fox (played by Mick Jagger in a fantastic, compassionate turn). Byron ends up servicing the wife of an aging legendary novelist (James Coburn) who wants Byron to co-write his final book. Within the layers of deception in the plot are strong themes of the deceptions we engage in with ourselves. Hickenlooper directs in a straightforward style, letting the outstanding cast (including Julianna Margulies, Olivia Williams and the always amazing Angelica Huston) move the story along with their subtle performances. The Man From Elysian Fields is a rare find, made by smart people and acted by an inspired ensemble who, ironically given the subject matter, were clearly drawn to the work of an excellent writer.

THE MINUS MAN (1999)
Released the same year as American Beauty and with a far more subtle and unsettling indictment of suburban angst at its core, Hampton Fancher’s The Minus Man is one of those miracle movies that the conventional wisdom says should not have been allowed to happen. Fancher, co-writer and co-Executive Producer of Blade Runner over fifteen years prior, already 60 years old and writing his screenplay based on an obscure novel, then attaching the not-yet-household name Owen Wilson to star…such a combo hardly seems the slam-dunk package that would have made investors, even indie investors, drool. But to anyone who grooves on intelligent, offbeat cinema that defies categorization, it is easy to see why.

Wilson plays Vann, a genial tabula rasa of a guy who just happens to be a serial killer whose preferred weapon is a fast-acting poison. In adapting Lew McCreary’s chilling book, Fancher, to his everlasting credit, never invites those chills with anything but the everyday. So, the story becomes fertile ground for an exploration of the superficiality of most human interaction, the pent-up pain carried by so many outwardly normal people, and the slow deaths some of us opt for rather than stare at ourselves for very long.

Fancher, a real actor’s director (he is a working actor himself), gets just the right tone out of his cast to make sure these themes are scratching at the walls of their psyches, revealing much without explicitly stating anything. Plus, Owen Wilson is really, really good as Vann. With just the right combination of guilelessness and boyish, aw-shucks enthusiasm, he makes it clear why people project anything they want onto him. This film is nothing more than a detached, casual observer to its own dark, frightening and often painfully sad events. In lesser hands, being casual about such disconcerting stuff could send things off the rails. But The Minus Man stays right on track, and it is, like Vann himself, waiting for you to come on board and lose yourself inside it.

FALLING IN LOVE (1984)
When Robert De Niro appeared on Inside the Actor’s Studio, he was, as are all of James Lipton’s guests on that program, subjected to the ten-question personality test that concludes each interview. When Lipton asked him “what is your favorite word?” De Niro replied, “Refinement.”

It is not surprising that this bit of ephemera got dislodged from my cerebral cortex while revisiting Falling in Love, the 1984 romantic drama in which De Niro co-starred with Meryl Streep. The film is refinement at twenty-four frames per second. Its painstakingly naturalistic exploration of two people gradually realizing they are gaga for each other (even though they are both already married to someone else) finds depth and complexity in that most simple of premises. Writer Michael Cristofer’s tale of a man and woman who share the same New York commuter train cannot help but be a nod to the 1940’s Brit classic Brief Encounter, but the immediacy brought to the proceedings by the unhurried and deeply felt performances of De Niro and Streep quickly reclaims this territory as its own. Add to the mix Ulu Grosbard, a director who had been quietly making some of the best films of the last decade or so (Straight Time and True Confessions [another contender for this list!] came just prior), and you get a transcendent romance that lets the scenes play out just as they should, never shying away from the miniscule moments that carry so much weight in the inner lives of its besotted and remarkably real characters.

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1981)
What if there was a musical that was more like one of the tough-minded independent directorial visions of late 1970’s cinema, a musical that was more like a film noir, a musical that plunged the viewer straight into a troubling dreamscape of metaphors for all the lies a nation can tell itself in order to survive? That musical has happened, though it came and went over thirty years ago, and it was called Pennies From Heaven. It hit screens in 1981 and baffled audiences who were fresh off Steve Martin’s ‘wild and crazy guy’ and starring role in The Jerk, as well as director Herbert Ross’s more widely known work on charming Neil Simon romantic comedies like The Goodbye Girl and California Suite. The script is a pared-down version of Brit TV phenom Dennis Potter’s multi-part series of the same name that had Bob Hoskins in Steve Martin’s role. MGM, the studio known for its musicals, chose to make this their first one in almost thirty years. With all this in mind, nothing could have prepared filmgoers for the work of art at which cast and crew were clearly at the top of their game making—an excursion into a Depression-Era America fraught with broken dreams and man’s inhumanity to man. Even today, one needs to settle into this astonishing filmmaking achievement by buckling in for an emotionally draining and metaphorically rich ride.

THE PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR (2000)
Tom Tykwer’s third feature is actually a deeper, more complex film than the equally brilliant Run, Lola Run. The Princess and the Warrior is part heist movie, part psychological drama, part romance, part character study…a lot of parts, which are beautifully integrated into a cohesive whole. How much you enjoy this film will depend on how much you believe that each of us is trapped in a psychosexual prison of our own making, and that until we can escape it, we will never be whole. It’s all very heady, even goofy stuff worthy of a weekend new-age expo, but Tykwer’s assured and unpretentious hand unifies all the disparate elements, and the message of self-empowerment, into a hugely satisfying cinematic experience.

Franka Potente (Lola herself) returns as Sissi, an inward, unformed soul who works as a live-in nurse at a mansion-like, countryside psychiatric facility that offers group therapy sessions clearly reminiscent of Cuckoo’s Nest. When a letter from a former colleague whose mother has just died asks Sissi to fetch an estate item from a safe deposit box at the local bank, Sissi (in one of the most raw and intense scenes you will ever witness) crosses paths with Bodo (Benno Fürmann), another quiet but far more volatile soul. After a lot of missed connections, they do meet up for what turns out to be a surreal and cerebral adventure. Tykwer lets the story go at a leisurely pace, yet achieves real tension by engaging us completely in the inner lives of his characters. With its dreamlike storytelling, so much of The Princess and the Warrior lingers in the memory. It will leave you thinking about what self-imposed jail you might be living in, and how best to dig your way out of it.

BONUS VINTAGE TITLE:

FOURTEEN HOURS (1951)
Richard Basehart (of He Walked By Night and La Strada) plays Robert Cosick, a 20-something guy who steps onto the ledge outside his Manhattan hotel room and gradually involves the entire city in the drama of whether or not he will jump. As earnest but wrong-headed police and psychiatrists congregate in his room, the gawkers gathering on the street below also live out the drama: cab drivers cynically take bets on what time the fellow will off himself; a young couple meets and begins a courtship. Meanwhile, in a building across the street, another couple is in a lawyer’s office, intent on divorce. The estranged wife is played by Grace Kelly in her very first film role—and it is hard to say whether the command of the screen she has comes from hindsight or an early gift. Ossie Davis (Bubba Ho-Tep fans take note) also makes his first screen appearance as one of the cab drivers.

Soon, we realize that Fourteen Hours is not so much about will he, but why he. As more and more chaos surrounds the tragic figure of Robert—his hysterical mother (transcendent as always Agnes Moorhead), ineffectual father (Robert Keith) and jilted girlfriend (wonderful Barbara Bel Geddes) all appear to try and get him off the ledge—the only person that seems to be able to get to the young man is Charlie Dunnigan, the traffic cop who stumbled upon him in the first place. As Charlie, Paul Douglas, affable character actor of the 1940’s and 50’s, anchors the proceedings and sets up the chasm that divides the “normal” world and the tormented mind of the suicidal man.

Cinematographer Joe McDonald resists the shadows of noir in order to keep the daytime activity on the ledge more realistic. Only when night hits do we see some of those signature dark corners. But the film is full of great shots juxtaposing the media vultures with the unfolding drama, using reflections of the jumper in windows to heighten the look and finding a variety of angles on the ledge to keep things interesting. McDonald and veteran director Henry Hathaway (Call Northside 777) do an outstanding job of choosing frames which both separate and unite their characters, and the intercutting, between the Hollywood backlot of the ledge and the New York Street scenes below is so impressive that the Art Direction was nominated for an Academy Award. (And Basehart was named Best Actor by the National Board of Review.) It is also worth noting that the film is almost entirely free of a score—only the random noises of the city provide the soundtrack to these tense moments.

Very loosely based on a true event, the film had a darker original ending that was cut after a personal tragedy involving an executive at the studio, so you might correctly perceive that the film wraps up rather clumsily. Don’t let that take away all the greatness that comes before.

I managed to score a DVD of this film during the days when Tower Records were closing down everywhere. I am not sure of its current availability, but it’s worth hunting down.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Raquel S.

Raquel runs the Out of the Past Film blog where her focus is on classic cinema. Read her here:
http://www.outofthepastblog.com/
And follow her on twitter here:
https://twitter.com/QuelleLove
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A Lady of Chance (1928) – While technically a part-talkie, the talkie part is not currently available so for all intents and purposes let’s call this film a silent. This is one of my favorite Norma Shearer films and one I wish more people would watch. Shearer plays Dolly, a scam artist who thinks she caught herself a millionaire. She marries her “millionaire” Steve (Johnny Mack Brown) only to discover he’s on rich in spirit and not in dollars and cents. Unfortunately, her old scam artist friends Bradley (Lowell Sherman) and Gwen (Gwen Lee) didn’t get the memo. They both think Dolly hit pay day and follow her to her new home in order to cash in on her find. Dolly starts to fall for Steve in earnest and is desperate to save Steve from her old cronies’ snare. It’s a wonderful movie with great 1920s aesthetic appeal. Shearer is at her most beautiful and it watches more like an early talkie than a silent. Some might consider the film a comedy but I see it as more of a light drama.


Young Man With a Horn (1950) – This movie is really special to me and I wish it got more attention than it does. It follows the story of Rick Martin, a jazz trumpeter, from his early start as an orphan who falls in love with jazz, to his skyrocketing career as a musician and to his ultimate downfall. Kirk Douglas does a wonderful job playing Rick with an intensity that suits the character well. Also in the film is the lovely Doris Day who plays a singer in Rick’s band. She’s the good girl and friend that Rick should be with. However, he’s tempted away by bored socialite Amy North, played by Lauren Bacall. She’s the femme fatale he shouldn’t be with but eventually marries much to his bad luck. It’s interesting to note that all three main stars in the film are still alive today! This film has jazz, booze, addiction, adultery and deals with race and inequality.


River of No Return (1954) – This film gets overshadowed by the fact that iconic Marilyn Monroe is one of the stars. But it’s really not just a Monroe film. It’s a wonderful Western, shot on location in the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, Canada, along the Athabasca river. I’ve spent some time in that area and by that river so this film reminds me of those times. Robert Mitchum stars as Matt Calder. He’s in town to pick up his young son Mark Calder (Tommy Rettig) whose been sent to him by his mom. They both meet Kay (Marilyn Monroe), a saloon singer, whose fiance Harry (Rory Calhoun) gets her and the Calders in trouble. The film is directed by Otto Preminger and it’s absolutely stunning. It’s not a perfect film but the actors all deliver fine performances, the action sequences are great, the shots of the Athabasca and the Mountains couldn’t be better and the plot goes along at a nice clip. I had the pleasure of seeing this film on the big screen at the TCM Classic Film Festival with producer Stanley Rubin in attendance.


Ex-Lady (1933) – This is a new favorite of mine and I’m sure it’s one Bette Davis looked back on with disgust. I disagree with her though because I think this one is a gem. It doesn’t go in for the shock factor like so many Pre-Codes. Quite the opposite! It takes a very solemn look at romantic relationships and the pressures of society. Bette Davis plays Helen, an in-demand and talented artist. She’s dating Don (Gene Raymond), an advertiser. They are secretly living together, unmarried. Her parents find out and the pressure is put on them to marry. Everything gets really complicated when they not only get married but start working together. It’s not a film that entertains rather its one that looks at relationships in a very frank manner rather than romanticizing them. This isn’t about courtship but rather what happens after you found love and all the demands that come with it.


A Patch of Blue (1965) – I can’t tell you how many times I have watched this film and have both fallen in love with Sidney Poitier and cried over the heart-wrenching story. The film stars then-newcomer Elizabeth Hartman as Selina. She’s blind and is the victim of the abuse of her floozy mother Rose-Ann (Shelley Winters) and the neglect of her drunkard grandfather Ole Pa (Wallace Ford). Her life seems bleak until she meets Gordon Ralfe (Sidney Poitier) in the park. She’s white and he’s black but she’s blind, both literally and figuratively to his race and they fall for each other. Things get really complicated when her mom begins to meddle. It’s such a fantastic story that really tugs at the heart strings.


Favorite Underrated Dramas - Adam Lowes

Mild-mannered civilian by day, passionate cinephile and dedicated blogger at night, he's a writer for UK sites, HeyUGuys and CineVue.
On twitter at @adlow76.

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At Close Range (1986)
An outstanding, brooding look at the sins of the father visited on the son, At Close Range is one of the best, and wildly under-appreciated, films to come out of US cinema in the 80s. Sean Penn plays Brad Whitewood Jr., a none-too-bright, aimless twenty-something whose world is altered forever when his long-absentee father Brad Whitewood, Sr. (Christopher Walken) shows up unexpectedly one day, offering Brad a job with his team of professional thieves.
Director James Foley (who would undo his sterling work here with flaccid Madonna vehicle Who's That Girl, the following year) stays well away from using the flashy aesthetics of that era, and weaves together a measured and utterly absorbing crime yarn, bolstered no end by superlative performances from the two leads. Walken slides easily from a camp playfulness to that trademark vengeful, deadening look in his eyes, while Penn more than holds his own with his seasoned co-lead. The final scene in the film, where Brad is being cross-examined in court and struggles to confirm that Whitewood, Sr. is his father, is an acting masterclass in buttoned down emotions. We see his face as it registers, in turn, the shame, embarrassment and anger that disclosure holds for him. Unmissable.


This Boy’s Life (1993)
A box office failure at the time, this poignant, beautifully-observed coming-of-age yarn deserves a place with other genre greats like Stand By Me and A Bronx Tale. An adaptation of writer Tobias Wolff’s memoirs, (a then 18 year-old) Leonardo DiCaprio plays the author’s alter-ego Toby, moving from state to state with his flighty, but loving mother (Ellen Barkin) as she strives to find a decent man and provide a better home for Toby and herself. She finally believes she may have found the stability she needs with new suitor Dwight (Robert De Niro), but upon marrying him, Toby soon discovers that his new step-father is a domineering and belligerent bully.

In his first starring role DiCaprio is terrific as the rebellious teen forced to grow up quickly. You really feel for him and how his once carefree world is suddenly taken from him by Dwight’s authoritarian and staunchly disciplined ways. If De Niro occasionally cranks it up a little too far, he’s still a frightening and unpredictable presence. Aided by a gorgeous and uplifting score by Coen Bros. regular Carter Burwell, This Boy’s Life is ripe for rediscovery for a new generation of cinema fans who will hopefully see it as the near classic it is.


Sugar (2008)
Writer/director combo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s followed-up to Half Nelson is a sports film with a difference, focusing on the journey of Dominican Republic pitcher Miguel Santos (AKA Sugar) as he attempts to make it to the baseball majors, via the US minor league system. The filmmakers strenuously avoid anything close to melodrama as Santos (a relaxed and unaffected turn by Algenis Perez Soto in his first acting ever role) adapts to a completely new way of life, and battles with the pressure and expectation which comes with the world he’s entered.
Sugar’s ultimate trajectory offers a very different outcome to the one intended for him, but that journey is devoid of cliché and makes for an engrossing and enlightening latter half of the film, which offers just as much insight into the life of an immigrant, that that of the pressures in competitive sport. Sugar has more than earned a place alongside the likes of Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy as the very best of American neo-neo realism.

A Room for Romeo Brass (1999)
Director Shane Meadows might be best known for This Is England, his 80s-set rites-of-passage flick from 2006, but this film, which marked his second feature-length effort, is every bit as moving and heart-felt. It also features one of the greatest debuts in the history of modern UK cinema, in the form of Paddy Considine. He plays a bizarre but strangely captivating presence who drives an emotional wedge between the titular character and his infirmed, bed-ridden best friend.
Like Ken Loach, Meadows is incredibly adept at capturing the quirks and personalities found in working-class, council estate England, bringing to life an assortment of colourful and memorable characters from that world. Considine’s Morell is a force of nature and the actor (who had received limited acting training prior to the film) delivers a tour-de-force performance, which is initially outlandish and hilarious (watch him attempt to body pop for an audience of pensioners) before becoming more than a little disturbing and unhinged. Meadows managed to coax a similarly mesmerising turn from his star in 2004’s Dead Man's Shoes, but their work here deserves the same, if not, greater praise.

Bonsai (2011)
Sex, love and literature are entwined in Chilean writer-director Cristian Jimenez’s second feature (adapted from an acclaimed novella of the same name). Light on drama but heavy on the sensual and whimsy, Bonsai is a slow, meditative film but it’s also incredibly watchable.
Eight years on from his years as a well-meaning (if a little ineffectual) literature student, Julio is a struggling writer who is offered the opportunity to help a well-known author type up the manuscript of his next novel. Ultimately passed over for the role, he tells his lover (and neighbour) otherwise, and instead begins writing his own story based on the relationship he was in with fellow student Emilia almost a decade earlier. His delving into the past reawakens his passion to write and also brings out a yearning for Emilia, who he has subsequently lost contact with. Julio begins to reassess his life, but an attempt to right any wrongs may already be too late.
Bonsai is a talky affair with little in the way of conflict and plot but Jimenez is very adept at capturing small, yet telling moment of real and very relatable human actions. All of these are often framed in visually-pleasing approach, whether it’s the abstract glimpse of the warm glow of naked human figures in a post-coital embrace, or the two lovers idly watching the world go by in the park.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Spenser Hoyt

Spenser Hoyt works at Scarecrow Video, the Seattle Public Library and helps out at The Grand Illusion Cinema. He contributed a bunch of reviews to Destroy All Movies!!! and sometimes does stuff on the internet when he’s not busy watching movies or listening to records.
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Fat City (1972 Director- John Huston)
Stockton, California’s grim world of apartments, hotels, vegetable fields, bars, and, most importantly, boxing rings provide the backdrop for several dead-end lives. Stacy Keach plays an over-the-hill boxer who contemplates a comeback after several years of heavy drinking. After helping a promising youngster (Jeff Bridges) get his career started, booze, jealousy, bad luck and smashed dreams bring their personal and professional lives crashing to the ground. Expertly directed by Huston, Fat City features some of ace cinematographer Conrad Hall’s best and bleakest photography and a strong supporting cast includes future Cheers coach Nick Colasanto and Susan Tyrell as one hell of a drunk.


Cinderella Liberty (1973 Director- Mark Rydell)
Sleazy, seedy, seventies Seattle is well represented in this story about an introverted Navy sailor named John Baggs (James Caan) who gets stuck in the Jet City after his paperwork gets lost. Baggs spends much of the film passing time, doing sundry mundane Navy work and tries to build a family (albeit a dysfunctional one) with a pool hustling hooker named Maggie (Marsha Mason). The plot indulges in predictable melodrama but the proceedings are elevated by the lead actors’ fine performances, a cast packed with unique faces and a bounty of seamy sights from my hometown.


Heart Like A Wheel (1983 Director- Jonathan Kaplan)
I don’t normally care for biopics and car racing movies usually leave me cold but I really got into Heart Like A Wheel. It’s the true story of Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney and her efforts to make it in the “dudes only” world of drag racing. Contrasting her risky performance on the track is Muldowney’s complicated personal life. Once again it is the actors that really lift the material into something special and, in particular, the underrated and underused Bonnie Bedelia must be singled out for her outstanding work here. Speaking of outstanding and underrated, this is another terrific movie directed by Jonathan Kaplan.


That’ll Be The Day (1973 Director- Claude Whatham)
Set in England during the late 50s when early rock and roll provided the kids their kicks That’ll Be The Day presents the story of a wannabee rock star (David Essex) who dumps school and family for a series of odd jobs and misadventures. Along the way he ends up employed at a carnival and is befriended by a carnie (Ringo Starr giving the best performance of his acting career, which maybe isn’t saying much but he is really good in this!). The film never glamorizes the rebel lifestyle and the movie’s one “rock star” is a jerk. A lot of people come into this film expecting some sort of rock musical and end up disappointed that it is another working class drama. Me? I totally dig this kind of stuff!


Nunzio (1978 Director- Paul Williams)
I’m going out on a limb here because I haven’t seen this movie in over 25 years but when it aired on cable back in my high school days it was quite the sensation. Nunzio is a mentally handicapped young man (played by David Proval of UHF and The Sopranos fame) who works at a grocery store in a tough, blue collar New York neighborhood. He dreams of being Superman and tussles with some neighborhood thugs. I don’t remember everything that happens in Nunzio but I really liked it then and I imagine I’d still like it now (if I could find a copy of this elusive movie!).

Bonus Road Trip Round:


Goin’ Down The Road (1970 Director-Donald Shebib)
This Canadian film is pretty well known in its homeland and maybe @paulcorupe will write about it. I first became aware of it after an SCTV spoof. It’s another excellent look at the disenfranchised working class and would make a good double bill with The Whole Shootin’ Match.


Route 66
I’ve recently been turned on to Stirling Silliphant’s wonderful early sixties television drama thanks to my wife’s obsession with her secret boyfriend Martin Milner. The show follows a couple of restless young men as they travel around the US in a convertible. The format makes the program more like an anthology series as the individual episodes focus on the other people encountered along the way. The guest stars are incredible and the scripts regularly deal with heavy themes and complex subjects. One of television’s best dramas.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Josh Johnson

Josh Johnson directed a neat new documentary all about VHS called REWIND THIS! and it is available digitally today! (August 27th), check it out!
https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/rewind-this!/id678902502 
Follow Josh's exploits on twitter here:
https://twitter.com/IPFjosh
And more exploits from the movie here:
https://twitter.com/RewindThisMovie
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THE STUDENT NURSES(1970; Stephanie Rothman)
This is it. The feminist counterculture relationship drama you've been looking for. You just didn't realize it was hiding beneath the surface of a nurseploitation film. Stephanie Rothman is one of the few female directors to work within the Roger Corman production machine, and she is definitely the most gifted.

Here she delivers what would be her masterwork. A collage of early 70's political unrest, LSD experimentation, and personal liberation, smuggled into the world inside the framework of a sexy romp. The perspective is notably female, and the attitude is refreshingly progressive. The drama resonates so strongly because Rothman crafts her characters with the contradictions of real human beings, never content to rely on formula or easy stereotypes.

Hopefully this film will rise out of the movie ghetto in the coming years, once enough people catch wind of its intelligence and independent spirit.

KNIGHTRIDERS(1981: George A. Romero)
George Romero's ode to the trials and tribulations of low-budget filmmaking is easily 30 minutes too long. That being said, I wouldn't have it any other way. It is an act of tremendous indulgence to make a film like this at all, and the indulgent nature of the film is a major part of its charm.

It is impossible to see the ragtag band of medieval motorcyclists at the heart of the story as anything other than a stand-in for Romero and his indie film co-horts, fighting against the dragon of the commercial movie business. Despite an obvious allegiance to the pure and noble knights, there is plenty of ugliness on all sides. The cast of characters are all filled with flaws that endear them to the audience, vanity and hubris chief among them. Nobody is innocent, and everyone in show business is possessed with a certain amount of ambition. Loving friends hurt one another for understandable reasons, and that hurt is transferred onto anyone watching.

Despite it's bloat and lack of focus, there is something immensely satisfying about seeing deeply personal conflicts played out on a grand stage. KNIGHTRIDERS has the feeling of a diary or confessional that has been adapted for the screen with just enough imaginary elements to allow anybody to project themselves onto the material. It is my favorite film in the Romero canon, even though it is far from the best. It speaks directly to the heart.

 
THE ROAD TO SALINA(1970; Georges Lautner)
The fluidity of identity is a concept explored at the core of many suspense stories. Those other stories don't have the advantage of Robert Walker, Jr's infinite blue eyes or Mimsy Farmer's sexually liberated aggression. They certainly don't have a psychedelic soundtrack that makes the loss of mental stability feel like a desirable ride.

A triumph of atmosphere more than anything else, the opening rainstorm sets the tone for what will be a consistently unsettling experience. We never quite get comfortable as events start to unfold, there is a pervasive wrongness here, much like in Polanski's films. But that doesn't dampen the sex appeal, as the twisted events contain an erotic charge that both confuse and arouse.This psychodrama is highly recommended date viewing, if your partner has a taste for the bizarre.

THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE(1975; Melvin Frank)
Mel Edison (Jack Lemmon) is a middle-aged man who has lost his job. He feels like a failure, and he lashes out unfairly. He has a wife (the staggeringly great Anne Bancroft) who loves him despite his shift towards seeking pity. Mounting frustrations due to a garbage strike during a heatwave, and the noise one encounters living in a big city, bring Mel to the point of a breakdown.

On top of a consistent amount of laughs, there is a tremendous amount of honest pain contained within this Neil Simon script. We feel deeply for Mel because he is us. More pointedly, he is the worst in us. We're all capable of being petty. We hold onto resentments that are unhealthy. We want life to be less difficult. Certain works of fiction can reflect our imperfections back at us, so we can properly consider our flaws. This film allows us to do that, and it does this with such truthfulness that it makes us feel as though we have the power to free ourselves from the prison of our own smallness.

 
THE VELVET HUSTLER(1967; Toshio Masuda)
Tetsuya Watari (TOKYO DRIFTER) plays Goro, a hitman paid to injure a Yakuza boss. As you might expect, the boss ends up dead, and Goro is dispatched from Tokyo to Kobe until it is safe to return. This is not an unfamiliar plot. The film starts to depart from convention once it shifts locations to Kobe, however, and the unusual direction of the film is driven by the character of Goro.

Goro isn't a brutal killer or a ruthless tough guy. He is a charming, smiling, and generally well-meaning man with the misfortune of being in the wrong line of work. He has a sense of cool about him, he is fun to be with regardless of the situation. This lends a peculiar sort of watchability to the proceedings as he gets accustomed to life in a simpler locale.

The drama comes from two directions, a romance with an emotionally damaged woman, and a hitman being dispatched to kill Goro. He deals with both in the same way, by being as smooth as possible in the face of life-changing events. It is immensely satisfying to observe, and the ending of the film has Goro doing something so impossibly cool it is not quite possible to explain in a write-up such as this. It stands alone as a singularly cool finishing note to a film, and has stayed with me since I first saw the movie many years ago.

 
THE SNIPER(1952; Edward Dmytryk)
Loneliness and alienation. Feelings that were meant for black and white. The noir style portrays this worldview so well because it allows characters to become lost in shadows. The frame of the filmed image can easily be used to convey a frame of mind. That said, the most successful entries use the black and white world they depict to explore the greyest areas of morality and human existence.

THE SNIPER is a fairly straight-forward B-picture about a troubled man who takes out his hatred against women with a rifle. What is surprising about it is that it portrays him in a very sympathetic light, and the film overall has an extremely progressive attitude about mental health. This progressive attitude likely comes from producer Stanley Kramer, and it infuses the film with a strong feeling of sadness. We know the sniper wants to be stopped, and we know that he is a prisoner of his own mind. That the authorities are not able to apprehend him more quickly causes each scene to be filled with dread over what will inevitably happen next. If anyone tells you that films from the 50's are emotionally simplistic, and dragged down by cultural ignorance, just put this movie on and wait 87 minutes for their opinion to change.


Monday, August 26, 2013

My Warner Archive Grab Bag: WIFE WANTED, KILROY WAS HERE & LOST ANGEL

WIFE WANTED(1946; Phil Karlson)
Starring and produced by Kay Francis, this is a twisty little genre number was directed by genre great Phil Karlson. Ms. Francis plays an actress in the twilight of her career who gets herself entangled in some crooked real estate deals(with a side-order of murder and blackmail!). Her involvement with a lonely hearts 'friendship club' is tied into the real estate shenanigans too. The club attempts to set up wealthy fellas with young ladies, but in this case they try to hook them into buying property too. This was Francis' last film and she looks lovely here. She rocks a few killer hats. I've certainly seen better Karlson films, but this is an adequate little Mongram time-waster noir.


KILROY WAS HERE(1947; Phil Karlson)
Also directed by Karlson, this is 180 degrees from WIFE WANTED in that its more of a campus comedy. I haven't delved deep enough into Karlson's films, but this is one of the first comedies I've come across from him. This film features a couple of Jackies- Cooper and Coogan. One was a famous child actor, the other would one day be known for his signature role as Uncle Fester(though he also had some memorable child roles including Chaplin's THE KID). Cooper plays a soldier by the name of John J. Killroy. Killroy is a name that goes hand in hand with the phrase "Killroy was Here" which was drawn onto walls all over Europe during the war along with a sketch of a guy peeking over a wall. When John J. Killroy gets his discharge from the army, the G.I. bill gives him avenue to a college education. When he hits a snag in getting into Benson College, he gets some help from the gal press-agent for the school. Jackie Coogan as Cooper's buddy who plays up him being THE Kilroy himself, is a nice little showcase role. Coogan is a lively, charismatic character and I was kind of surprised by him as I was so used to Uncle Fester. He's the highlight of the movie for me for sure.
I have an odd affection for the sort of light campus comedy from this period. You've got the obligatory 40 year old-looking fraternity fellas and corny goings on. Pixar's recent MONSTER'S UNIVERSITY recalls not only the college comedies of the 1980s, but also this kind of film to a lesser degree. Having grown up in the 80s myself, I always got a sense that college was the wildest time in a person's life. The idea of it being such a wholesome place flies in the face if that idea but is nonetheless entertaining.


LOST ANGEL(1943; Roy Rowland)
Some professor at the Pickering Institute of Child Psychology decide to take a baby girl through a very special experiment. She will be raised and educated by them each day to see if she turns out any differently than a conventionally parented child. They diplomatically name her 'Alpha' after the 1st letter in the Greek alphabet. So from a very young age, she is thrown into a regular regiment of schooling. Each day is divided into blocks and she is taught not only academics, and languages but also arts, music, physical education and chess among other things. When she reaches the ripe old age of six, she meets a fast-talking reporter  who opens her eyes a bit to things not so academic. The things of imagination and fantasy which she has been lead to be skeptical of. Once inspired with the idea that these magical things exist, she decides to leave the institute to go off and see for herself. She leaves a note for her teachers that says simply, "I am going. I will be back. I have to find out something". And so her adventure into the city begins. The film is at once quite charming and yet oddly terrifying when you think of any attempt to update it to the present day. being a father of a 4 year old girl myself, it is hard not to shake at least some uneasy feeling when watching a story about a very young girl on her own in the city. That aside, the movie has a Capra-ish kiddie sensibility about it and that makes the universe feel safe and warm and cuddly for the most part. It reminds of a similar film from almost 10 years later called THE LITTLE FUGITIVE which features a little boy on his own near Coney Island. I prefer that film to this one, but LOST ANGEL is a nice companion piece to it.
Alpha is played by the rather adorable Margaret O'Brien(THE UNFINISHED DANCE) and she does a bang-up job. She brings a less-than obnoxious precociousness to the role and it is quite refreshing. Typically, a character like this can make you want to claw your eyes for being so darned annoying. Not that this kid is without her irritating qualities, but overall O'Brien brings a darling earnestness to the character that can't help to warm ones heart cockles a bit. The cast includes Warner Archive favorite Donald Meek, plus Keenan Wynn, Alan Napier(Alfred the butler from the 1960 Batman TV series) and a very young Robert Blake! All in all a wonderfully charming little movie. It's one of those relatively unheralded classics in search of an audience.



Saturday, August 24, 2013

Scream Factorized: PRINCE OF DARKNESS on Blu-ray

 
Right up front let me say that BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is one of my all-time favorite films. I saw it at a small shopping center theater in Brookfield Wisconsin in the summer of 1986. It truly blew my 12 year old mind at the time. I loved it so much I went back the next day and saw it a second time. I truly adore the movie, foibles and all. I only preface with this because PRINCE OF DARKNESS was of course John Carpenter's very next film after BIG TROUBLE. It was released in October of 1987. I didn't see it then. It would be some time before I would finally get to see it on VHS. You see, I didn't know who John Carpenter was in the summer of '86. He would become one of my favorite directors, but I lost track if him after BIG TROUBLE for a little while. When I finally got around to PRINCE OF DARKNESS, I don't think I liked it. I'm not sure why, but I've really come around to it over the years. I know that part of the reason is obviously Carpenter and his amazing auteurial filmmaking powers. His shot selection(use of Panavision too),his music, his penchant for fantastic and horror stories and his love for Howard Hawks are are part of the alchemy. The other factor for me is PRINCE's cast. Donald Pleasance and Carpenter together are a wonderful duo. Beyond that though, PRINCE shares a few cast members with BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA: Victor Wong and Dennis Dun. I love both of these actors and I associate them almost exclusively with BTiLC because that was the film that I first saw them in and where they imprinted on me. Dennis Dun is one if those actors that I would love to cast in a narrative feature if I ever made one. I'm always kind of hoping Tarantino will throw him a bone and cast him in something. I know QT is a BTiLC fan so it doesn't seem out of the realm of possibility. Beyond Wong and Dun the cast also contains other nostalgic faces. Fans of 80s TV like me will recognize both Jameson Parker from SIMON & SIMON and Thom Bray from RIPTIDE. There's even a dude(Dirk Blocker) who played one of the jocks in MIDNIGHT MADNESS. And then of course there's Alice Cooper, who didn't do enough movies as far as I'm concerned. He doesn't have too much to do in this movie, but it is nonetheless nice to see him. After the cast there's the music that is also quite similar to BTiLC's. From the opening strains of it under the Universal logo, that ominous 80s Carpenter electro-synth often makes me think for a second that the next shot will be of Jack Burton in the Pork Chop Express.I really can't say enough about how much I love the music in Carpenter's films. Talk about an element that helps immerse you in the world he's created. It's just damned cool stuff.
This movie is kind of like Carpenter's GHOSTBUSTERS. Okay not really, but it reminds me of the middle to end of GHOSTBUSTERS as filtered through the mind of Carpenter. The evil that is awakening all around the characters here is much darker, and more satanic than anything the classic 80s comedy ever touches on. In a nutshell, PRINCE OF DARKNESS reminds me of the scene in GHOSTBUSTERS where Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson are in the Ecto-1 and talking about "what If this is the end of the world". The majority of the movie is like that scene in that there's a lot of folks talking about the evil as it creeps up on them. It's definitely one of the most 'slow burn' kinda movies that Carpenter ever made. I guess I can see how those that prefer their Carpenter with a little more cut-to-the-chase thrills or action might be disappointed this film. He is definitely trying to work through some scientific, philosophical and religious ideas here and that is engaging enough for me. Some of the science is pretty silly, but it never takes me out. Throw in the fact that he's incorporated gore and a possession/mind takeover plot into the mix as well and I'm good to go. Additionally, since the film takes place almost entirely inside a church, there is a nice sense of claustrophobic tension that is ever so slightly reminiscent of THE THING. The movie is so talky though it almost feels like Carpenter's take on art-house horror. His own satanic, multi-character version of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE meets BODY SNATCHERS and THE EXORCIST. Feels a tiny bit like a Carpenter stage play. Carpenter was working with a much smaller budget here(about $3 million) versus with BTiLC($20 million) and you can feel it in the film's single central location at the church and the emphasis on dialogue. You do get a sense though that Carpenter is trying some stuff out here and attempting to do something a little different than before which I respect. Also, it's interesting to note that(at least according to the internet) PRINCE OF DARKNESS out-performed BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA at the box office by about $3 million(it made about $14 million while BTiLC only pulled in about 11). Those numbers may be domestic only, but I hadn't realized that until now. PRINCE OF DARKNESS is definitely one of Carpenter's most disturbing films. Even in rewatching the movie again via this disc I found myself having moments of unease(and one solid jolt) which doesn't happen much these days. Many other Carpenter films have a certain sense of fun about them underneath the scares. Not so much with this one. It is filled with dread and powerful unsettling imagery and that might be what helps make it memorable. One more thing I can say for it is that it passed my "put the movie on too late at night but still stayed up to finish it" test and that should count for something.
Scream Factory's transfer for this new Blu-ray looks quite good. It's much brighter and more detailed than I am used to. On top of the film looking better than it ever has, Scream has also included a commentary from Carpenter himself(which I believe may have been ported over from a UK DVD of the film). Also included are new interviews with Carpenter, Alice Cooper, Visual Effects Supervisor Robert Grasmere, and Co-Composer Alan Howarth. Plus!
-Alternate Opening from the TV Version of the film.
-'Horror's Hallowed Ground' a short featurette dealing with the church where PRINCE OF DARKNESS was filmed.

PRINCE OF DARKNESS is available via online retailers and through Shout! Factory:
http://www.shoutfactory.com/?q=node/218021 
(it streets on 9/24)