Rupert Pupkin Speaks: January 2014 ""

Friday, January 31, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Redbeard Simmons

Redbeard Simmons is an L.A. media marketing consultant and one-off screenwriter (Meet the Applegates). He was the ‘voice’ of AMC’s DVD_TV series for eight years and now curates a listening blog for The Jazz Bakery.  His beard is naturally red.

Redbeard is one heck of a nice fella and an extremely passionate cinephile. He and I also share a passion for the books of Danny Peary and he was kind enough to let me interview him for my documentary:

As a movie fanatic, I’m embarrassed that my discoveries were fairly homogenous in 2013.  Blame it on two major cultural shifts at home:  1) Music listening is steadily replacing movie watching as my preferred leisure-time activity; and 2) Cutting the cord was a gateway drug to Hulu’s Criterion library, which is now my go-to source whenever I’m in the mood to catch a flick.  In addition, I binge-watched a TV series for the first time last year … and while I savored every deranged minute of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, that’s roughly twenty movies I could’ve watched instead that weekend.  (Theoretically speaking, of course.)  You can’t tell me that streaming isn’t already a MAJOR new twist in home entertainment.  Anyway, as I was saying … since my 2013 Discoveries list is on the safe side, Brian said I could include a few other recent discoveries, with the caveat that I disclose they were seen between 2010 and 2013.  They’re noted below.
The Americanization of Emily (1964, d. Arthur Hiller)
Johnny Mandel’s theme song is a beloved jazz standard, so it’s kinda surprising how long it took me to seek out the movie it came from.  With its Mandel-Chayefsky-Garner-Andrews pedigree and towering critical reputation, The Americanization of Emily arrived on my TV screen with a certain amount of baggage.  It’s a superior anti-war satire – a brainiac’s screed against the military and the cruel ironies of war.  Except that theme song is so lush and romantic, you expect a soft heart to emerge.  And it never does … perhaps to its credit, though I’m still not convinced.  James Garner out Clooneys himself as a smarmy “dog robber” (valet) to fuzzy-brained admiral Melvyn Douglas.  Meanwhile, Julie Andrews sleeps around as the brittle, unDisneylike title character – a war widow and military groupie who sneers at cowardice.  Oddly, I don’t remember her singing “Emily,” although Wikipedia claims she does.  My takeaway?  Come for the Chayefskyan dialogue, stay for the melody.

Bonus: One of the best “Emily” covers, on SpotifyZoot Sims – Emily

At Long Last Love (The Netflix Cut) (1975, d. Peter Bogdanovich)
I confess to liking this legendary box-office bomb during its original release, and with good reason:  Peter Bogdanovich was a gracious pen pal of mine during adolescence.  Following a meteoric running start, Peter’s Hollywood career imploded over this off-key musical featuring three rising stars who no one else would’ve championed as singers or dancers.  At Long Last Love went AWOL afterwards, with the director’s tacit approval.  And there its horrid reputation festered for decades.  By some small miracle, an editor at Fox secretly recut the picture and sneaked that version out for obscure cable showings.  When Bogdanovich caught it streaming on Netflix, he actually enjoyed this alternate edit and gave Fox Video permission to release it (for the first time ever) on blu-ray.  Neat backstory, huh?  It may be hard to defend this extended/restored version against accusations of miscasting and hubris, but there are some pleasant surprises in store:  The black-and-white-in-color art direction is HD retina candy.  The spontaneously-sung musical numbers have a pre-karaoke vitality.  And Cybill Shepherd sings a fuck of a lot better than Britney Spears or Madonna.  The pace often drags due to the long, long takes necessitated by live recording, but Bogdanovich stages them cleverly.  I’m glad we finally have this movie to kick around in any form, at long last.

A Bigger Splash (1974, d. Jack Hazan)
Jack Hazan’s part-fictional portrait of artist David Hockney (then on the verge of superstardom) has got to be one of the weirdest documentaries ever made.  I remember when this would occasionally turn up at revival houses in L.A. – it had a sordid reputation for exploiting Hockney’s participation and/or impugning his character.  To my surprise, as a Hockney enthusiast, I caught this on Netflix and found it bold and way ahead of its time.  Hazan imposes a narrative structure around the constipated gestation of “Pool with Two Figures” that may or may not be bogus.  He intentionally mismatches footage, misidentifies locations, manipulates context and ‘directs’ the participants – transforming Hockney’s lowkey breakup into a tormented soap opera that anticipates reality TV.  (The overbearing music sounds like something you’d hear in an Almodóvar melodrama.)  According to urban legend, Hockney collapsed upon seeing the assembled footage, then went into hiding and tried to buy the negative.  Luckily his friends convinced him the film was a valid artistic work in its own right.  To my mind, Hockney looks cool as shit traipsing around London in ‘70s dandy attire.  Best of all, you get to meet the subjects of his famous double-portraits:  Celia Birtwell, Ossie Clark, Mo McDermott and Hockney’s muse, Peter Schlesinger.  There’s an extended, graphic homoerotic interlude that makes this an apt double bill with Blue Is the Warmest Color.

The Exterminating Angel (1962, d. Luis Buñuel)
Tristana (1970, d. Luis Buñuel)
Comedy directors usually fall into two distinct camps.  The purveyors of good-natured lunacy, such as John Landis, Jerry Lewis and Jacques Tati, are called humorists.  The other, nastier bunch are labeled satirists.  Robert Altman, the Coens and Alexander Payne belong in this category.  They’re the kind of goofsters who enjoy depicting humans at their stupidest.  And that’s OK by me – I never did buy into the sermon that Sullivan’s Travels preached (ironically, that movies shouldn’t preach).  The human race is petty and cruel and selfish on most days, with the herding instincts of sheep.  So I had no problem with these two sardonic, not especially witty comedies directed by that grand crank Luis Buñuel.  In Exterminating Angel, a dinner party for stuffy bourgeois phonies disintegrates when no one summons the intestinal fortitude to show independence and leave.  Tristana delights in watching an arrogant intellectual hypocrite (Fernando Rey) suffer a vengeful karma for defiling his adopted charge (Catherine Deneuve).  Buñuel would hit his commercial stride a few years later with the sparkling The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but these two Spanish-language parables illustrate how misanthropic he could be in pursuit of laughs.

L’Avventura (1960, d. Michelangelo Antonioni)
L’Eclisse (1962, d. Michelangelo Antonioni)
Red Desert (1964, d. Michelangelo Antonioni)
L’Avventura was my most rewarding viewing experience of 2013, and I’m half-ashamed to admit it.  Not because it’s a guilty pleasure, but because I waited so damn long to give it a spin.  A haunting exercise in cinematic subtraction, it’s still a mindblower 54 years after it was made.  And more of a career gamechanger than Blow-Up, I would bet.  L’Avventura could be considered a companion piece to La Dolce Vita (also 1960), but artistically, it cleans Fellini’s clock.  I could write an entire blog about this movie … and guarantee it would sound like pretentious horseshit.  So let’s leave it at this: L’Avventura is the reason why cinema is a superior medium to television, in spite of the current meme to the contrary.

Hats off once again to Hulu Plus for making Criterion’s library affordable and accessible to everyone.  They also stream Antonioni’s subsequent collaborations with Monica Vitti, his iconic muse (L’Eclisse and Red Desert).  She’s captivating in all of them, and Ingmar Bergman’s bitchy dismissal of her talent betrays a surprising blindspot.  It’s not just her flawless complexion and facial symmetry that absorbs your attention; there’s something beatific and noble about her suffering, too.  Note to Self:  Add Modesty Blaise to this year’s queue.

La Truite (1983, d. Joseph Losey)
La Cérémonie (1995, d. Claude Chabrol)

My entire beef with the Oscars can be boiled down to one charge:  How much credibility can a nominating body expect if they fail to nominate Isabelle Huppert for anything?  I mean, are they still pissed off about Heaven’s Gate?  Year after year this formidable French actor gives devastating, unmannered performances … yet she remains persona non grata to the Motion Picture Academy.  Therefore I skip the Academy Awards and go out of my way to watch her in something/anything on Oscar Night.  Or Daniel Auteuil, my favorite actor.
La Truite is Joseph Losey’s next-to-last picture, the tale of a shrewd, sexy bumpkin who blueballs her way into the business class by teasing, then squeezing the pathetic CEOs who throw themselves at her.  The character is an odd fit for Huppert because she’s supposed to be unsophisticated yet irresistible (she’s neither).  Despite this handicap, she forges ahead like she’s Brigitte Bardot.  To be honest, the whole production reeks of badly lit ‘80s Euro-Skinemax.  At least it shows you how to drain fish sperm by hand.

La Cérémonie is inspired by the same lurid double-homicide that was the basis of Jean Genet’s The Maids and countless other adaptations.  Claude Chabrol’s variation moves the action to the present, and instead of psycho-lesbian-sister-maids, he makes one killer an illiterate housekeeper (Sandrine Bonnaire) and the other (Huppert) a nosy postal clerk whose self-delusion becomes the film’s ticking time bomb.  She is probably Huppert’s most despicable character – and that’s saying something.  It was a real kick watching Jean-Pierre Cassel (Vincent’s dad) talk shit to Huppert in this one, after he slobbered all over her in La Truite; things turn out badly for him in both pictures.  For me, La Cérémonie’s biggest shock was the climactic bloodbath.  Though it’s hardly Looking for Mr. Goodbar, I wasn’t expecting exploding squibs from Chabrol, either.  At least no fish were rubbed out.

The Last Metro (1980, d. François Truffaut)
Acclaimed latter Truffaut drama is one of those backstage dramas that’s more fun to describe than to watch.  (The Black Swan also comes to mind.)  During World War II in Occupied France, frosty drama queen Catherine Deneuve runs her Israeli husband’s theater company after he disappears underground.  She butts heads with the troupe’s star (Gerard Depardieu) … and you know where that kind of thing leads.  This a tailor-made part for Deneuve, who ultimately reveals the humanity behind her haughty mask.  Depardieu is in the middle of his skinny/sexy brute phase, and Truffaut’s economy as a director is always impressive.  But I’d be lying if I said I preferred Metro to Mississippi Mermaid, the previous Truffaut-Deneuve outing.  That Noir-meets-New Wave thriller may be a sprawling mess, but Deneuve’s chemistry with Belmondo is much more feral and satisfying.

The Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1972, d. Gene Saks)
It’s too easy to dismiss Neil Simon’s filmed Broadway comedies as talky and visually stagebound (which they are).  He wrote some genuinely witty dialogue for some very funny actors in his day. This movie stands out among his credits because it’s a bit raunchier than Simon’s usual fare.  Coming on the heels of his non-breakthrough in Catch-22, Alan Arkin goes for broke here playing a neurotic, middle-aged, finger-sniffing horndog.  Only 38 at the time, Arkin competes for laughs opposite three of the kooky-est actresses of their generation.  Paula Prentiss and especially Renée Taylor get giant laughs as two of his would-be conquests; but it’s Sally Kellerman, in full vamp mode, who steals the show as a chainsmoking lush who picks up Arkin at his fish restaurant.  Her smoker’s hack – whether it was actually Kellerman’s or the sound FX team in overdrive – is worth the cost of the rental.  In fact, I’d happily buy a ringtone.

The Lion in Winter (1968, d. Anthony Harvey)
This beloved classic, adapted by James Goldman from his own play, has been hovering near the top of my ‘Must I?’ must-see list for 30 years.  I planned to stream it over last Thanksgiving weekend, put it off another week, and next thing I knew, Peter O’Toole had died.  So I finally watched it in his honor.  Truth be told, this fictionalized family meltdown involving Henry II, his MILFy ex-wife and their three conniving asshole sons over Christmas break isn’t as “thespy” as I feared.  The actors mostly keep it in check, and while Goldman’s anachronistic dialogue is stiff enough to sound stagey, it isn’t so Shakespearian that you can’t follow along.  As written, the characters’ behavior exhibits a communal bi-polar disorder; one minute they’re declaring undying love for each other, two pages later the shivs come out.  I guess that’s sorta the point of holiday get-togethers?  The musical score by John Barry is particularly out-there and reminded me of the Satanic choirs in the Omen movies.  Happily, the surprises keep coming.  I never thought I’d hear Katharine Hepburn describe swinging jewels from her nips, but just wait for it.  Nor did I anticipate the implied intimacy between Hannibal Lector 2.0 and James Bond 4.0 (Sir Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton, in their film debuts).  Whatever you do, don’t conflate this title with The Wind and the Lion, as I did for years.

Lost Horizon (1937, d. Frank Capra)
This classic became available to stream on iTunes on New Year’s Day 2013, which is when I finally saw it.  Since I’d seen the notorious 1973 musical remake during its aborted theatrical release, I was always curious about the  “good” version.  Well, Frank Capra never lets you down … unless you don’t subscribe to his sunny outlook.  Which I rarely do.  Even so, source author James Hilton’s utopian premise makes this one worth watching and spending a day or two contemplating.  Could little pockets of civilization evolve enough to live by the golden rule?  Is “Be Kind” a practical motto?  It’s a nice dream … unless it’s not a dream.  See what you’re in for?  On the downside, Jane Wyatt is a very disappointing dream girl (brace yourself for her braying “Whhhyyyyyyyyy?” exchange).  On the upside, Ronald Colman and H.B. Warner (as Chang) are tits.  Honestly, though?  I think I may prefer the remake.  It’s pretty straightforward until they get to Shangri-La and everybody breaks out singing show tunes.  Maybe they should’ve called it That’s Dystopia!

The Osterman Weekend (1983, d. Sam Peckinpah)
Know how some titles you’ve always been curious about never manage to get added to your rental queue?  This one’s been on the tip of my tongue forever, and it was a revelation to find it available for streaming late one night.  Peckinpah’s critically reviled swan song used to play on cable TV throughout the ‘80s, but for some reason I always stumbled on it toward the end, just in time to see Meg Foster work her bow-and-arrow voodoo.  But whose team was this wolf-eyed badass playing for, I always wondered?  Roy Batty’s or Coach’s?  The answer is … I honestly forget.  Who gives a toss, right?  This is Cold War studio pulp at its trashiest and sleaziest.  You have to marvel at the introductory snuff movie surveillance footage that comes with its own softcore porno soundtrack.  And award bonus points when the same footage later airs on a national news program that’s supposed to be 60 Minutes.  Peckinpah, the Old Iguana, directs with a shaky/iron (probably drunken) fist that I find remarkable given the shitty script.  And it’s always fun to encounter cult actress Foster (They Live, A Different Story) at the height of her unsettling beauty.

Spirit of the Beehive (1973, d. Víctor Erice)
Wow.  Wow.  Wow.  #2 on my 2013 Discoveries list.  You can file Spirit of the Beehive in the same visually-poetic-masterpiece category as Walkabout, as far as I’m concerned.  An immersive experience from frame one to the final image.  (In other words, see it altered.)  Two young sisters from a rural village in Franco’s Spain see James Whale’s Frankenstein, and the younger one (Ana Torrent) becomes infatuated with the Monster.  Anyone who was traumatized by a horror film during the impressionable ages of 7 and 10 (for me it was 1973’s TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark) will relate to this serious kid who runs away from home and pops some mushrooms when the chips are down.  I love this strange movie and look forward to revisiting it in about five years, when the stark imagery has soaked in.

Summertime (1955, d. David Lean)
Another Criteron-on-Hulu notch and another helping of Hepburn.  This time Great Kate’s a spinster traveling abroad who finally gives it up for a local merchant once he catches the scent of a (desperately horny) woman.  I watched this with a friend who was about to travel to Venice for the first time; we groaned through most of it, although I did end up enjoying it.  (She didn’t care for Venice, either.)  David Lean aims for a quiet, melancholy tone and partly achieves it.  But the vivid color palette and tourist-friendly compositions will provoke eyerolls from anyone who’s been to Venice lately.  Hepburn plays it self-aware and wins your sympathy, although you may want to backhand her around the 20th time she calls somebody “Cookie.”  (Somehow that tic must’ve been less annoying when Shirley Booth played the role on stage.)  Rossano Brazzi (South Pacific), now there’s an offbeat choice to play the Italian stud who sweeps Kate off her feet – he’s all puppy dog eyes when he’s not otherwise resembling Jon Lovitz.  The best moment occurs when he’s trying to be seductive and suddenly bellows in exasperation, “You [Americans] say, ‘I want beef-a steak!’  My dear … EAT THE RAVIOLI!!”


Deep End  (1970, d. Jerzy Skolimowski)
Skolimowski’s Deep End (more than one movie bears this same name) is one of the best movies of the 1970s, and certainly one of the most underseen.  It took me 30 years to track it down after first reading about it in Danny Peary’s Cult Movies.  Finally, if you own an all-region player, you can now spring for an excellent British blu-ray released by the BFI.  Sexual rites of passage don’t get much ickier than the one depicted in this seedy London bathhouse (filmed and overdubbed in Germany) toward the end of the Love Revolution.  Saucy flamehead Jane Asher dominates this unclassifiable tragi-comedy, channeling a ballsy eroticism that no one saw coming from Paul McCartney’s mousey ex-fiancée.  She’s the object of our virgin protagonist’s obsession, a dirty cocktease, a false idol doomed to fall from her pedestal – and for the entire running time, we can’t take our eyes off her.  She’s at her sexiest whenever she pops a fuse.  Now that I think of it, this should be on a double bill with Roeg’s Bad Timing.

John and Norma Novak (a/k/a Rock Opera) (1977, d. Clu Gulager)
This unfinished 35mm demo reel from cult actor/underground filmmaker Clu Gulager is the most hypnotic, fucked-up thing I’ve ever watched in a movie theater.  American Cinematheque ran this 30-minute, four-scene sampler during a tribute to independent cinema one night, and you could feel the entire Egyptian Theater tripping.  It’s an ultraviolent, technically polished, blaring rock opera written and performed by the Gulager Clan.  (Clu’s wife, Miriam Byrd-Nethery, has mad pipes!)  It treats cross-dressing, physical deformity, bank robbery, lesbianism and crotch-shooting as subjects worth singing about.  And not just singing – belting out like Meatloaf.  Can you imagine The Umbrellas of Cherbourg re-envisioned by John Waters, directed by Ken Russell and scored by Led Zeppelin?  It’s no surprise that Gulager never found the funding to complete his severely twisted vision, but I, for one, regret it.

The Landlord  (1970, d. Hal Ashby)
Every year, the late, great hippie editor/director Hal Ashby inches further up my Favorite Directors list.  Having watched all of his ‘70s output from Harold & Maude through Being There many times over, I was ecstatic to finally find his first film (as a director) on Netflix.  Admittedly, The Landlord’s lumpiness did not win me over the first time.  Broad comedy mixes uneasily with pathos, and Ashby fumbles the tone more than a few times – the sure sign of a novice.  But his empathy and sly, good-humored editing encourage repeat viewings.  I’ve watched The Landlord more than a dozen times now, and it gets funnier and deeper after you get a handle on Ashby’s wavelength.  (The cut to “WHITE” on the truck grille floors me every goddamn time.)  The script by Bill Gunn is unapologetically anti-establishment, even for its day.  Story follows a wealthy white douchebag who buys a tenement in the ghetto, aspiring to gentrify, but instead fathers a mixed-race baby with a married tenant while falling in love with a neighborhood go-go dancer.  Ashby assembled a very hip ensemble cast and does right by each; Beau Bridges (this is his signature role), Diana Sands, Pearl Bailey, Lee Grant, Marki Bey, Susan Anspach, Louis Gossett Jr. and Robert Klein have rarely been better.  Let’s beg Warner Bros. Archive to clean this up and release it on blu-ray so we can marvel at Gordon Willis’ slumdog cinematography.  While they’re at it, let’s ask them to throw in a CD of Al Kooper’s funky soundtrack, too.  It remains out-of-print except on vintage vinyl.

Pigeons (a/k/a/ The Sidelong Glances of a PigeonKicker) (1970, d. John Dexter)
Not really a movie to recommend, but notable (to me at least) because it contains the only film appearance by Jill O’Hara.  She was Broadway’s “It” girl at the time Pigeons was made – and New York City was the Mecca of raw talent back then.  Future movie stars Pacino, Dreyfuss, Keaton, De Niro and Clayburgh were making their Off-Broadway debuts in radical new plays every week.  Meanwhile, 21-year-old ingénue O’Hara was at the center of things, winning lead roles in the original productions of Hair and Promises, Promises and introducing the showstoppers “Good Morning Starshine” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”  At the age of 5 or 6, I saw her play Fran Kubelik opposite Jerry Orbach in Promises – a Burt Bacharach/Neil Simon musical based on Billy Wilder’s The Apartment – and fell in love … basically for life. She had these large liquid eyes, beatnik bangs and a folkie singing style not steeped in musical theater tradition (she’d begun her career as a bistro singer in Greenwich Village).  If my memory can be trusted, she played Fran less like Shirley MacLaine and more as a proto-Annie Hall with moodswings; I vividly recall that she sang the living shit out of “Knowing When to Leave.”  And then, following her first and only movie, she just vanished.  Pigeons (originally called The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker) was recut and retitled but still received only regional distribution until Scorpion released a DVD in 2012.  Seen today, its cast of stoned hipsters is a far cry from Five Easy Pieces’ entitled dropouts and drifters.  Yet it’s got a bitchen electronic score (performed on a Moog!), a large cast of hammy theater actors (including Melba Moore, David Doyle and Elaine Stritch) and authentic period NY locations.  As the manic pixie girl-next-door, Jill O’Hara is precisely as I remember her – vulnerable and endearing and honeyvoiced.  I wish fame had not eluded her.

Trouble Every Day (2001, d. Claire Denis)  
Technically this one doesn’t count being just 13 years old, but I can’t not recommend it.  Fans of The Tindersticks especially should track down this obscure entry in the Claire Denis filmography (I ordered a Korean DVD from Amazon).  She’s one of my favorite working directors, and though Trouble Every Day is not as solid as White Material or Bastards (her newest), it’s still a movie that only she could or would make.  Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle are perfectly cast as genetic-experiment freaks who turn into bloodthirsty cannibals and sex addicts.  It may sound arch, but Denis approaches every shot in every one of her movies with utmost sincerity, whether it’s a genre picture or a human-scale drama; she’s never coy about anything, ever.  That’s what makes her filmmaking so beguiling, so immersive and ultimately troubling.  She doesn’t flinch.  (Bear that in mind when the gore starts.)  This is also the best of The Tindersticks’ multiple collaborations with Denis, and they came up with a killer title tune.  The recent CD boxset of their film scores gets my highest recommendation.

The UFO Incident (1975, d. Richard A. Colla)
The golden age of MOWs (network TV’s Movies of the Week) produced several class acts featuring top-tier talent, such as Sybil with Sally Field, Brad Davis and Joanne Woodward and The Execution of Private Slovik with Martin Sheen and Ned Beatty.  The UFO Incident gets my vote for most underappreciated of this sub-genre.  It was based on published accounts of Barney and Betty Hill’s alleged alien abduction while returning from a road trip in New Hampshire in 1961.  Incorporating dialogue from actual transcripts of the Hills undergoing regression hypnosis (you can hear the original tapes on YouTube), a small cast of dynamite actors keeps your spine tingling as the flashbacks get creepier and spookier.  James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons star as the Hills, with Barnard Hughes as the skeptical hypnotist who ends up more frightened than they are.  Despite the occasional groaner (mostly dwarves in Spandex alien costumes), there are moments when you’ll simply bolt out of your seat.  What really elevates this superlow-budget production, however, is the emphasis on Barney and Betty’s interracial marriage (pre-Civil Rights) and the brave face they display outwardly while crumbling internally from undiagnosed PTSD.  Their pillow talk is devastating. This is a very tough movie to track down in anything but bootleg form, but it’s a master class in acting and economic suspense plotting.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Warner Archive Instant Gems - THE PACK

THE PACK(1977; Robert Clouse)
This is favorite in the genre for me for sure. A small tourist-y island is overrun by a pack of wild dogs and Joe Don Baker (playing a scientist?!) must deal with them. It's interesting in that this group of dogs is supposed to be made up of animals that were left behind by families staying there for the summer or something. There's even a scene early on of a dad and little boy having to leave their dog as they skedaddle off the island. It's a sad scene because the dad basically just ties the dog to a tree and bails. Anyway, said dog joins the titular "Pack" and becomes evil I guess. So Joe Don and great character actors L.G. Armstrong and Richard B. Schull(among others) find themselves on this island and under siege by this crazy platoon of feral varmints and must fend them off. Pretty simple plot, but nonetheless a good time. Two things I like about this movie are the director and the tagline. The director, Robert Clouse is most notable for his film ENTER THE DRAGON, but I also love him because he did DEADLY EYES. DEADLY EYES is a killer rat movie(one of the best killer rat movies I might add) and one of my favorites in this genre as well. The aforementioned tagline is: "They're not pets anymore." and I think that couldn't be more perfect. Even the poster is one of those neat 70s posters where the title is kind of the logo and they've come up with this silhouetted image of these monster dogs to represent the animals in the movie. All just right on the mark for me. One more thing that stands out is the way the dogs come off in the film. By that I mean, I'm guessing none were actually hurt in the making of the movie (as is often indicated during the closing credits), but they certainly seem really pissed off in a lot of the scenes they're in. I'm not saying anyone did anything wrong exactly, but there seems to be a looser etiquette with the treatment of the dogs and I have to say it gives the film this edge that a present day film wouldn't have. The dogs really feel dangerous and frightening in moments and it helps the film in a way. I am 100% against animal violence and am a dog owner myself, but I am not ashamed to admit that the old "don't make em like they used to" ways of animal handling certainly brings with it a certain authenticity of sorts that is missing from films today. Again, not saying I condone what was done, but I certainly noticed a difference in the way a film of this era feels versus now.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think this movie would get a DVD release (which it did) but even more mind-blowing is to see it streaming via Warner Archive Instant in HD on top of that!
(and P.S. they have a 2 week free trial if you aren't already signed up)
I really do love this movie despite its flaws and even did a podcast about with some friends a while back(we also covered GRIZZLY):
My friend Hal over at his excellent blog The Horn Section did a great write up of this movie before it arrived on dvd and you should really read that (he does the film more justice than I do):

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Eric J. Lawrence

Eric J. Lawrence is the Music Librarian over at KCRW(a wonderful radio station) and I have been a fan of his radio show there for more than 10 years now. It is truly my favorite radio program out there. Quite an eclectic mix of new and old songs, it's described on KCRW's site as thus:
"A musical line-up of criminally overlooked tunes, hidden gems, guilty pleasures and standout selections from the latest releases... from Jacques Brel to Mott the Hoople to Gary Numan to the Fall, and everything in between. Like playing poker with dogs -- only better."
I can't really recommend the show higher than a decade of listenership can I? Check it out! 

Eric is also an adventurous cinephile whose tastes I respect very much. In fact, it was he who first turned me onto THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS which turned out to be one of my very favorite discoveries of 2013. 
Check out his discoveries lists for 2011 and 2012 below:
The Old Fashioned Way (William Beaudine, 1934)
In part inspired by our webmaster’s Twitter icon, I recently embarked on a W.C. Fields spree, and of the films I’ve seen so far, The Old Fashioned Way is my favorite.  It has the perfect balance of all of the Great Man’s skills – lots of hilarious bluster, loads of self-deprecating humor, some excellent physical comedy, a little bit of juggling and even some pathos-inspiring acting (a skill oft overlooked in Fields’ repertoire).  He has both a matron and a child to play off of – Fields regulars Jan Duggan and Baby LeRoy respectively.  And the play within the film gives him a chance to poke fun at theatricality itself, tweaking the very proboscis of the industry that kept him in his beloved “pineapple juice” throughout his career.
Maid of Salem (Frank Lloyd, 1937)/The Egg & I (Chester Erskine, 1947)
These are two of the seven films Claudette Colbert & Fred MacMurray did together.  Maid of Salem is a pre-Crucible telling of the Salem Witch Trials; stylized for sure & only loosely based on real events, but still powerful in its depiction of hysteria.  Colbert plays a young Puritan woman who falls for MacMurray’s adventurer-on-the-run, but an accusation of witchcraft threatens her life.  MacMurray looks impossibly young here (he really resembles Benedict Cumberbatch) and they work well together, but their romantic plot does distract from the larger historical story being told.  Some familiar character actors (Donald Meek, Sterling Holloway) bring a little levity to the situation, and legendary African-American actress Madame Sul-Te-Wan is memorable as Tituba the slave.  Ultimately, the film’s message seems to be “kids are not to be trusted.”  Ten years later, Fred & Claudette team up again as a recently married couple of city slickers slogging it out trying to be chicken farmers in rural Oregon.  This one is definitely played for laughs, although things do get a little misty when various disasters and misunderstandings lead to a near divorce. The film also marks the first appearance of Marjorie Main & Percy Kilbride as Ma & Pa Kettle, a hillbilly family who were the subject of a series of popular films that essentially kept Universal afloat during the 50s.  Despite the increasing ridiculousness of their later appearances, here the Kettles are amusing but ultimately sympathetic characters, even leading to Main being nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.  The message here: “chickens are not to be trusted.”
The Wrong Man (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956)
This year I’ve been catching up on a few of the Hitchcock films I had never seen before, including Young and Innocent (a blackface scene?), Dial M for Murder (a heroic police officer??) and Topaz (John Vernon as a Cuban generalissimo???). But The Wrong Man is the one that knocked me for a loop.  A bleak film, probably the bleakest in Hitchcock’s oeuvre – so bleak he didn’t even put himself in a funny cameo.  Instead he intros the film himself, backlit & shadowy, explaining that the film we are about to see is based on real events. These real events switch the stereotypical Hitchcockian “wrong man” away from being pressed into performing hair’s-breath heroics to a more mundane nightmare – being mistaken for a criminal with no way to prove his innocence. Henry Fonda is the victim, but it is Vera Miles as his wife who suffers the most, as she becomes stricken with guilt and depression over the incident, leaving the potential for a happy ending largely muted.  Cinematographer Robert Burks, a Hitchcock regular, gives the actual New York settings a gritty, B&W look more reminiscent of Warner Bros. gangster films than Hitch’s typically glossy pictures.  Dark and haunting.
The Music Room (Satyajit Ray, 1958)/Nayak (Satyajit Ray, 1966)
I caught a number of Satyajit Ray films as part of a retrospective at the American Cinematheque this year, and these two were my favorites among the ones I hadn’t seen before.  The Music Room is a hypnotic tale of an Indian aristocrat who basically trades his dwindling fortune for the opportunity to put on parties with grand musical performance for his friends and neighbors.  It’s basically a story of obsession, and those rarely end well, but at least here the obsession is for the beauty of art, specifically Indian classical music, which can be shared with the viewers.  Actor Chhabi Biswas perfectly captures the aristocrat’s physical weariness (symbolizing the crumbling of the hereditary aristocracy of India), which contrasts with the look of beatitude on his face when he is listening to the music. Nayak is sort of like Ray’s combination of Wild Strawberries & 8½.  A famous Bengali actor travels across the country by train in order to receive an award, and through conversations with other passenger and various flashbacks and dreams, he re-examines his life.  Lead actor Uttam Kumar is sort of the Marcello Mastroianni of India (he even looks like him), and the dream sequences in particular betray the influence of Bergman and Fellini.  It makes for a fun variation on a classic cinematic theme.
The Whisperers (Byran Forbes, 1967)
Funny to think that one of the most unrepentantly bleak films in all of British cinema came out during the Summer of Love, but so it did.  Then again, The Whisperers is basically a feature-film version of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” In an Oscar-nominated role, stage legend Dame Edith Evans plays Mrs. Ross, a dementia-addled 76-year-old woman subsisting on the UK welfare system. She imagines voices in the constant dripping of her kitchen sink.  She tries to convince the National Assistance office workers that she’s actually an heiress, despite needing money to fix the holes in her shoes.  Her son only visits her to hide some stolen money among her newspaper hoardings, but she discovers it, only to lose it all in a mugging that leaves her hospitalized with a serious case of pneumonia.  It’s like a horror film written by Samuel Beckett, all captured in gorgeous black and white, shot by Bryan Forbes regular Gerry Turpin, and with a lovely, plaintive score by John Barry. Things liven up a bit when the always watchable Eric Portman arrives as her errant husband.  But after a brief flurry of criminal activity, he withdraws once again, leaving Mrs. Ross with her dripping faucets and hole-ridden shoes. It’s a devastating character study and a rare honest depiction of the forgotten elderly.
Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford, 1980)
The only color film on my list this year (whatever that suggests of my viewing patterns), this Australian film deals with the court-martial of three Australian Army officers accused of murdering prisoners during the Boer War.  Now I knew next to nothing about the Boer War, so much of my appreciation of this film probably comes from simply being educated to some of the history of it, because, frankly, the film isn’t terribly cinematic.  The South African veldt is pretty barren, and when the scene isn’t set on some lone encampment, it is set in the near-empty field house that serves as the courtroom.  But the strong performances from Edward Woodward (not Australian, but an actor whom I wished did more film work) as the titular accused Lieutenant Morant and Jack Thompson as his lawyer keep this one interesting and a thorny puzzle for trying to understand the morality of war.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Jackson Stewart

Jackson Stewart is a writer/director living in Los Angeles.  He created the web series 'The Cartridge Family' and wrote for the CW show Supernatural.  He recently finished a new short titled 'Sex Boss'.
He's on twitter @bossjacko.
1.  The Stranger's Gundown aka Django the Bastard (1969)
-An eerie entry into the 100+ unofficial Django films made in Italy during the 60s and 70s.  Anthony Steffan takes the Django role this time reimagined as the ghost of a vengeful Union soldier.  There's a terrific sequence where Django is hanged that's harrowing and director Sergio Garrone seems to be flirting with some supernatural horror elements throughout.  Check it out if you can find it.
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2.  Homebodies (1974)
-I caught this with an unsuspecting crowd on 16mm during Cinefamily's United States of Horror series back in October and was blown away.  The movie centers around a group of elderly folks who've been living in the same building for many, many decades.  A greedy real estate mogul sets to kick them out and destroy the building and our septuagenarian heroes will stop at nothing to keep their place.  It's a pitch black comedy and resonated with me for weeks after seeing it.  The tone is perfect and the film concludes with (no joke) a thrilling paddleboard chase.  It's a must.
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3.  After Dark, My Sweet (1990)
- This is oddly obscure despite being based off the seminal Jim Thompson novel of the same name.  Jason Patric stars as Kid Collie, a disgraced boxer recently having escaped a mental institution; through a series of events, he's roped into kidnapping a wealthy man's child and ends up snatching the wrong kid.  Needless to say, things don't go very well.  This film grabbed me from frame one with its taut visuals, career best performance from Jason Patric and grim tone (maybe the closest to match Thompson's novels).  It's a nasty movie and Bruce Dern crushes it as Uncle Bud, the sadistic brain behind the kidnapping.  Looks like it is available on Amazon Instant too.
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4.  Corky (1972)
- Robert Blake stars as Corky Curtiss, a childlike country boy who dreams of stock car racing glory.  He's an edgy character, unlikable in many scenes but the type we want to see succeed.  I can't quite say why, but the movie left a big impression on me and there's a pervasive ennui throughout it that leaves you thinking.  There's a suitably tragic ending and some great 1970s locations.  I had an extremely hard time finding a copy.
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5.  Road of Death (1973)
- Jack Birch (Thora's dad), stars as Frank a regular dude just enjoying a swim in the lake with his pal Joe Banana and gets beaten up by a gang of bikers who kidnap his girlfriend.  The movie is as low budget, sleazy and exploitive as it gets, with the bizarre insertion of Joe Banana's band, The Joe Banana Thing, forced into the middle of the movie.  Very flawed but I had a blast watching it and I think you will too.  Here's a link to the trailer (with some hilarious voiceover at the end) that should help sell you on the movie. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Scream Factory - WITCHBOARD & NIGHT OF THE DEMONS on Blu-ray

WITCHBOARD (1986; Kevin Tenney)
WITCHBOARD will always stand out in my mind as one of the movies that I would obligatorily see nestled in amongst the other VHS tapes amidst the shelves of every small town video store I ever strolled into. 
I can't recall exactly how old I was when I first played with a Ouija board, but I'll tell you what, it freaked me right out. I won't go into the story, but suffice to say that I was inclined to be made a bit terrified by a movie like WITCHBOARD. Because of this movie (and THE EXORCIST of course), I refuse to have a ouija board in my home at any time. I'm sure I sound foolish, but don't let that deter you from checking out WITCHBOARD if you haven't. It's gained classic status for a reason. It's a solid horror flick with good scares, a fun story and the gloriously beautiful Tawny Kitaen (just slightly pre-Whitesnake videos). The writing and acting for that matter are above average here and it's clear why this movie was a big success for director Tenney and helped put him on his way to making more features (including a less successful sequel to this movie in 1993). This new Scream Factory Blu-ray looks excellent (no surprise) and is stacked with a ton of extras.

Special Features:

This is a nice special edition and it includes a few commentary tracks and other supplements....

The 1st commentary includes writer/director Kevin Tenney and cast members Kathy Wilhoite, James Quinn & 
Stephen Nichols. The cast reflects here on specific memories of the movie.

The 2nd commentary is a very pleasant, informative listen. It features writer/director Kevin Tenney and his executive producer..
It's a real nice track that lays out the whole history of the production and it's clear the film holds a special place in the hearts of all of the gents on this track (as it was their 1st collaboration and first feature). Lots of recollections here of the production and how they are all humbled that they pulled it off being that they didn't exactly know what they were doing.

'Progressive Entrapment - The Making of WITCHBOARD' a great 45 min doc thoroughly covering the inception of the idea via director Tenney based on a couple strange experiences he'd had with a ouija board, carrying that idea into his first screenwriting class on through meeting his producer's and all aspects of the film being made. Some of this material is covered in the commentary, but I like this doc better as it is well structured and edited and really gives a nice 'whole picture' background and context for this lower budget movie (& some general ideas for all the difficulties one can potentially encounter when making a movie on this scale). The doc also includes interviews with the all the principle cast members as well and it's neat to see them look back on this little phenomenon of a horror flick that impacted their young careers. 
-Vintage Making of WITCHBOARD featurette'  7 mins - interesting to see this piece in addition to the new making of doc, especially with all of the on-set footage and so forth. Nice time capsule.
Also included are what appears to be the full length interviews that were excerpted in the Vintage Making of:
-Cast Interviews- 2o mins. Also vintage footage/interviews with various cast members.
-On Set with Todd Allen and Stephen Nichols - 20 mins.
More vintage interviews, with the two make leads. 
-On Set with the makers of WITCHBOARD - 20 mins. Vintage interviews with Tenney & producers.
-Life on the Set - 20 mins. Vintage Behind the scenes on the set of the film with various crew members and cast.
-Constructing the World of WITCHBOARD - 21 mins. Behind the scenes of rigging up and building small sets for special effects shots in the film.
-Outtakes - 7 mins. On set flubs and bloopers.

NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (1988; Kevin Tenney)
The cool 80s synth begins over black and leads into a seemingly demon and Halloween-themed animated credit sequence. If you're like me, these two things in combination are an indicator that what's coming next is gonna be a good time. Director Kevin Tenney followed his WITCHBOARD success with what would be another video store horror section favorite and a film that's gained a significant cult following over the years. As big of a fan of cult movies (and cult horror movies specifically) I had somehow not seen this little gem until this Blu-ray. I have to be honest here in saying that the old VHS and DVD covers for this flick kinda turned me off and were a dumb contributing factor to my avoidance. I wasn't as aware of Kevin Tenney specifically back then but I've since realized I dig his films quite a bit so I'm sure if have sought it out based on him had I known better. I recently even purchased his film WITCHTRAP on VHS and am a big fan of that one as well. Anyway, so in Tenney's NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, a bunch of kids decide it'd be a hoot to throw a party in an old abandoned (and demonically possessed) funeral parlor and it goes about as well as one would think. Scream and nudity queen Linnea Quigley is certainly a highlight in this one and it is definitely one of the films that has defined her cult status as an actress. The movie also has some fun 80s gore and splatter as well as some groovy demon makeup that help make it memorable as well. When I was in high school my friends and I watched EVIL DEAD II for the first time and it blew our minds. I could see young folks seeing this movie on VHS in the early 90s and it making a similar impression. It's certainly no EVIL DEAD II, but it seems cut from the same cloth and like a film that EVIL DEAD II fans would enjoy.
Scream Factory's Blu-ray special Edition is packed with extras:

First up, the commentaries:
The 1st includes Director Kevin Tenney, actors Cathy Podewell, Billy Gallo, Hal Havins, and special makeup effects creator Steve Johnson and the 2nd with Tenney, producer Jeff Geoffrey, and executive producer Walter Josten. Both tracks are good, and give somewhat different perspectives on the film. I prefer the 2nd track as it is a bit more nuts and bolts, but I prefer the making of doc (see below) even more as a comprehensive look at all aspects of the way the film was put together.

"You're Invited - The Making of NIGHT OF THE DEMONS" - this is probably the best supplement on the disc, a 1 hour and 11 minute retrospective documentary on the film. This is a great feature for fans in that it includes interviews with Director Kevin Tenney, his producers, writer Joe Augustyn,
The doc goes into nice detail in regards to the production, the creative collaboration between Tenney and Joe Augustyn, the casting, locations, and more. A very enjoyable, informative watch for fans.

-'Amelia Kincade, Protean' 22 mins. Interview with actress Kincade as she discusses her work in music videos as a backup dancer prior to acting, a change in careers which was encouraged by her aunt Rue McLanahan, and the experiences leading up to her audition for NIGHT OF THE DEMONS. She also talks about her experiences working with director Tenney and the rest of the cast.

-'Alison Barron's Demon Memories' 4 mins. Actress Barron's shows some of her own personal photos from the production.
Also included are a video trailer , TV spots, a promo reel, behind the scenes gallery, special effects and makeup photos and posters and storyboards.