Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - James David Patrick ""

Friday, February 7, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer of underappreciated fiction and non - with a distracting, lifelong habit of movie-watching. He is currently orchestrating #Bond_age_, the James Bond social media project (housed at www.007hertzrumble.tumblr.com) and blogs about various other nonsense at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com. (Please) stalk him on twitter: @007hertzrumble and @30hertzrumble.
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The Ritz (Richard Lester, 1976)
I wrote about The Ritz for my Underrated Comedies list earlier in the year. I’d just watched it before penning the list for Rupert Pupkin Speaks, and my affection for the big gay hotel-screwball-mob movie hasn’t hardly dissipated. I stand by my assertion that his movie could have only existed during the mid-1970’s. I do not think it’s a coincidence that this film came out the year after The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Any earlier and it would have been pre-empted by a lack of acceptance for gay-themed movies (even ones as over the top as this). Any later and it might have been marred by political correctness and, perhaps, Cuba Gooding, Jr.

Cleveland sanitation company owner Gaetano Procio (Jack Weston) gets marooned in a gay hotel, hiding out from a hit put on him by brother-in-law Carmine Vespucci (Jerry Stiller). Here Procio meets a colorful cast of flamboyance including lounge singer Rita Moreno, new BFF F. Murray Abraham and the “chubby chaser” Claude (Paul B. Price). Director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, Superman II) strikes the right balance of farce and, well, farce in adapting the Broadway play to the big screen.

Spider Baby (Jack Hill, 1968)
For the first fifteen or so minutes, I couldn’t tell if Spider Baby (aka The Maddest Story Ever Told) was a satire, a sincere(ishslasher, a really messed up melodrama or just completely bonkers. It was honestly one of the most bizarre openings I’ve seen, horror or otherwise. I had no sense of what Spider Baby was supposed to be or wanted to be. I tweeted thusly:
"WTF is wrong with this movie?"
I was well aware of Spider Baby‘s cult status… but quite often the quality of a film has very little to do with the cult esteem. The inbred Merrye family lives with the inherited curse of a disease that causes them to mentally regress to “pre-human savagery and cannibalism” as they age. After the death of the family patriarch, the family’s chauffeur becomes the guardian of the motley crew. When I sent that above tweet, I was thoroughly convinced that the film’s popularity had been based on the “so-bad-it’s-bad” mantra rather than the “so-bad-it’s-good” variety. But then the movie clicked. Spider Baby boasts a wicked sense of humor and some creepy proto-slasher moments in addition to some surprisingly crisp and moody black and white cinematography. It’s at once a send-up of the old Universal monster flicks and a gateway to the 1970′s slashers. The movie doesn’t have a genre, but it’s unforgettable, wicked fun. (Also, does Lon Chaney, Jr. give the best performance of his career here? This movie had no business cultivating such a layered performance.)

Little Murders (Alan Arkin, 1971)
“Those guys in the park, they said 'Hey, fat face! What are you staring at?' If I told them I wasn't staring at them, they would've beat me up for being a liar. And if I told them I was staring at them because I wanted to take their picture, then they'd beat me up for being a cop. So I told them I was staring at them because they looked familiar, and they beat me up for being a fag. There's no way of talking someone out of beating you up if that's what he wants to do.”
My initial impression is that this movie thumbed its nose at traditional narrative and told the three-act structure to sit and spin. Upon further reflection, I’m not sure it holds such distaste for traditional narrative. Rather, Little Murders uses the narrative to usurp the viewer’s expectations for what a movie must do to be successful.
At face value it's a commentary on 20th century malaise as it is rooted in godlessness, soulless intellectualism and disconnection. The exercise succeeds because it rarely feels like drudgery, instead erring on the side of screwball histrionics derived from the more madcap Bunuel satires.No character bothers with likability and the aforementioned “narrative” treats cause and effect like a Mobius strip. The characters experience malaise because of soul-crushing violence and the emptiness of modernity. Violence and the emptiness of modernity result from humanity’s malaise.
Like The RitzLittle Murders started as a stage play. And it’s hard to imagine either existing without prior success away from the cinema. No suit would have bought into either concept. Though the dialogue at times becomes overtly self-aware, the cast (featuring Elliott Gould, Doris Roberts and Donald Sutherland) sells each line of dialogue with absurdist flare for under- or over-statement as the film demands.

Death Rides a Horse (Giulio Petroni, 1967)
The movie’s tagline should have been: Lee Van Cleef, badass m’f’er.

For the most part, the Spaghetti Western genre consists of Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name Trilogy and then everything else. Except that Death Rides a Horse just feels like a Sergio Leone picture. Familiar faces (Lee Van Cleef, Mario Brega and Luigi Pistilli), familiar words (written by the Trilogy’s Luciano Vincenzoni) and familiar scoring (Ennio Morricone) abound. If Death had been directed by Leone, it would have been a better movie. But it wasn’t. And as a result, it’s quite possible I enjoyed it even more.

Without Leone at the helm, however, Petroni’s Spaghetti Western becomes an essential B-movie revenge picture, a rough, uncut gem, awash in cliches and clumsy direction. Some outdoor scenes were clearly filmed in a studio. (An actor casts a shadow over an entire mountain!) But there’s a thrilling familiarity found among the retread. A young man in suspenders (John Philip Law) obsessed with avenging the rape and murder of his mother, the slaying of his father.An ex-con (Lee Van Cleef) seeking payback for a double-cross. Prosaic conflicts propelled by mistaken identity that could have been solved over tea, crumpets and conflict resolution. Instead, most everyone’s going to die. Actors will snarl in absurdly long close-ups. Innocence will be lost. And in hindsight you might regret enjoying something so paint-by-numbers… so inadvertently humorous… and somehow thrilling… but that’s all irrelevant while you’re in the moment, while you’re buying into all the decadent pulpiness, the scenery chewing and the snarl of Lee Van Cleef.

The Manchu Eagle Murder Mystery (Dean Hargrove, 1975)
Maybe all you need to know about The Manchu Eagle Murder Mystery (from here on known as MEMM) is that it was directed by a guy most remembered for producing Perry Mason, Father Dowling MysteriesDiagnosis MurderMatlock and Jake and the Fatman. And he never directed another feature-length movie ever again.

Or that might not tell you anything at all. It might all be a red herring.

I stumbled onto this film scouring the MGM burn-on-demand titles. After reading the synopsis, I knew I had to see this movieHere’s the very same synopsis from IMDBthat inspired a blind purchase. I struggled to come up with anything quite so succinctA chicken hatchery owner/novice private eye solve the arrow murder of a local milkman, philanderer and animal fetishist.

Ten minutes into the film, a harried client rushes inside the chicken hatchery/detective’s office complaining that someone’s trying to kill him. The chicken hatchery scientist/detective dismisses the claim as a simple misunderstanding as bullets bust through the window. They must be kids throwing rocks, he says. As he goes looking for the blasted kids, an arrow hits the client square in the forehead. Then he realizes, finally, that misdeeds might possibly be afoot. MEMM bravely (foolishly?) revels in its own bizarre eccentricities like a straight-faced, fully tongue-in-cheek Mel Brooks movie. Except more vicious.For fans of gonzo variations of the detective narrative, don’t miss this one. For everyone else… I suppose if you’re still reading this, you owe yourself a watch of this truly memorable film (that has somehow been completely forgotten if it was ever known at all).

Terror in a Texas Town (Joseph H. Lewis, 1958)
Sterling Hayden day on TCM. There was much rejoicing and plenty of Twitter chatter about which movies to DVR. The conversation went something like “It’s a Western and yadda yadda yadda Sterling Hayden breaks out the harpoon.” And then yadda yaddad my phone app and DVR’d Terror In a Texas Town.

I expected merely the cheap thrill of Nordic badassery transplanted into the old West, but I soon realized Terror was so much more than just a simple B-picture starring the harpoon of Sterling Hayden’s Swedish immigrant. In many respects, the film undermines many of the glorified origins of this country’s western expansion. By employing traditional genre stereotypes – the hired gun, the greedy tycoon and the corrupt sheriff – as pawns in a narrative laced with the stink of McCarthyism (screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, by the way)Terror, in many ways, broadcasts a much more contemporary point of view and assumes the characteristics of a modern revisionist Western. The townspeople allow themselves to be driven off by the powerful landowner (Sebastian Cabot) only to return at the end to defend him against the altruistic everyman who dares defy him. After the conclusion (and I don’t think I’m spoiling this in any way) the townspeople merely dissipate after the “good guy” arises victorious. There’s no rejoicing. It’s as if they all can’t acknowledge the horrors in which they’d become complicit.

Even the film’s non-linear construction toys with our genre expectations. The film opens at the finale, a duel to the death. Two men saunter down the main drag. The most “Western” scene of all. Except that one guy has a harpoon. The camera leads the viewer to certain assumptions about the nature of the confrontation, the hierarchical positions of the men involved. And then flashes back, steadily rewriting the dogma planted in our brains after the opening. There’s no standard gunfighting, no scenes on horseback and, most importantly, no scenes opposing good vs. evil, the virtuous vs. the sinner.

And even if all this extra “stuff” doesn’t interest you, you can always go back to the idea that it’s just a cool little B-picture starring Sterling Hayden and his harpoon.

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)
This entry is as much a confession as it is a recommendation. I’d consider Elliott Gould to be one of my favorite actors, all time. Top 5, no doubt. Throw indirection by Robert Altman, a brilliant and bearded turn from Sterling Hayden, and my affection for Noir and Neo-Noir and suddenly not having seen The Long Goodbye becomes an egregious oversight of unimaginable proportions. So I remedied that when I found it was on Netflix streaming.

Altman takes the Raymond Chandler source material, churns it through the 70’s-era genre grinder and spits out a witty, divisive, and brilliantly misanthropic version of the famous literary detective Philip Marlowe that surely causes Chandler purists to hemorrhage. Gould and Altman, together, make the character uniquely their own. Laconic and aloof. A chain-smoking prude that is at once annoyed and thrilled by the world around him.

The only constant, trusted and reliable companion in Marlowe’s life is his cat. And if/when you watch The Long Goodbye keep this in mind as the film reaches the (surprising) finale. Robert Altman is saying, in the way that only Robert Altman could, that Raymond Chandler’s world no longer exists, and that our personal relationships with man and beast might be all we really have to call our own.




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