Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Eric J. Lawrence ""

Thursday, January 30, 2014

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.

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