Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Jon Abrams ""

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Jon Abrams

Jon Abrams is a writer and sometime cartoonist out of New York. He has written for Paracinema and writes regularly at Daily Grindhouse.  Check out his homepage, Demon’s Resume.

This Val Lewton production was based on a Cornell Woolrichstory and was directed by Jacques Tourneur (CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, OUT OF THE PAST). It concerns a leopard that is purchased for a nightclub act, but escapes and is soon suspected of a string of maulings that ensue.  Not to spoil the movie, which is stylish and atmospheric and worth watching regardless, but the leopard is not guilty of the murders.  Now, granted, I’m describing a highly limited subgenre, but I’m a sucker for a good Hitchcockian “wrong man” thriller where animals are suspected of crimes they didn’t do (see also: PHENOMENA).  
The DVD edition of the film features a fun commentary by EXORCIST director and LEOPARD MAN admirer WilliamFriedkin!  It’s really worth it just to hear him say the name “CluClu.”

Amazingly, this is the first André De Toth film I’ve seen, but what a ferocious introduction:  CRIME WAVE drops you square in the action, as three hoods (including a young Charles Bronson) rob a gas station and kill a cop in the process.  This sets Sterling Hayden on their trail, which is bad for them, and worse for poor Gene Nelson, an ex-con trying to go straight who is roped into the situation by both sides.  Aside from the period details, CRIME WAVE feels like it could have been filmed last week – De Toth’s directorial style is almost frighteningly current.  Bert Glennon (STAGECOACH, RIO GRANDE) is the cinematographer.  This is an exciting, visually virtuosic film, and I can’t wait to search out more from its director.

I’m a cinematography nut, and for guys like me, this movie is heaven-sent. A Sam Fuller film starring Robert Ryan (one of my very favorite movie stars), HOUSE OF BAMBOO was shot by the great Joseph MacDonald, who also shot MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, a personal favorite and one of the most memorably-lensed Westerns ever made.  That one was in stark black-and-white; this one is in eye-popping CinemaScope.  A gorgeous film noir set and filmed in Japan, HOUSE OF BAMBOO makes beautiful use of color.  It being a Sam Fuller joint, the compositions are equally creative.  You could use pretty much every frame of this film as a mural, or a desktop background, or however you like to mount pretty picturesThis film has ‘em in abundance.

A Henry Hathaway production with script contributions from Ben Hecht and story contributions by Nick Ray, along with music by Dmitri Tiomkin, CIRCUS WORLD stars John Wayne as a circus owner who takes his show overseas in search of his daughter’s mother, played by Rita Hayworth.  But let’s be honest, the reason I watched it was Claudia Cardinale.  She plays the daughter, a bold aerialist in the circus.  For my money, Claudia Cardinale is the most beautiful woman ever to appear in films, so for me, watching her doing acrobatics and hanging out with chimpanzees and clowns is an easy sell.  She’s adorably tomboyish in the movie, and forges a believable bond with the animals, so yeah, you could say I was enraptured.

SHARK! (1969)
Before 2013 I did not know Sam Fuller made a movie with Burt Reynolds and a shark.  Once I uncovered this information, I’ll give you one guess what I did about it.

In 1972 director Michael Winner and star Charles Bronson gave us THE MECHANIC.  In 1974 they gave us DEATH WISH.  Sandwiched between them, in 1973, was a lesser-known collaboration, THE STONE KILLER. Bronson plays a rough, violent ex-cop, obviously, who leaves the streets of New York for the sunny weirdness of Los Angeles.  Watching a trenchcoat-clad Bronson give the stink-eye to a hillside full of frolicking hippies is one of the purest joys I got from any movie all year.  Bronson is asked, “Do you like Los Angeles?,” to which he responds, “It’s better than a sharp stick in the eye,” which I myself have found to be a measurable fact.  THE STONE KILLER is surely the only Charles Bronson action thriller to feature both John Ritter and Norman Fell, both playing cops and four years ahead of Three’s Company, and if that weren’t enough, it features a quick cameo by Angelo Rossitto, a Hollywood mainstay from FREAKS to MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME.

New York City detective Tony Lo Bianco (THE FRENCH CONNECTION) confronts a sniper who has shot and killed a dozen innocent people on a city street (Andy Kaufman appears briefly as a uniformed officer amidst the chaos).  The sniper commits suicide, but not before telling Lo Bianco, “God told me to.”  That becomes a similar refrain as Lo Bianco investigates a series of otherwise unexplainable murders.  Where it all leads is way weirder than it ever promises to lead.  This is a Larry Cohen film.  I’ve seen a bunch of them, but with the great Scream Factory release of Q this year, I set about catching up on the ones I haven’t seen.  GOD TOLD ME TO is one of his rawest, most esoteric films, but I also tend to think it’s pretty great. Larry Cohen is maybe the single most overlooked and under-regarded New York filmmaker.  But not by me!

I’m not going to go into detail on this one, for fear of my brain melting down again.  I still have half of this list left to go.  Suffice it to say that THE VISITOR is truly an oddball epic, a bizarre anti-masterpiece, a film so thoroughly weird it kinda can’t be denied.  I experienced its awful wonders thanks to Drafthouse Films, and I’m glad I did, even though I don’t know yet what marks it has left on my immortal soul.

A freakish mix of near-total ineptitude and period trappings, THE FOREST has a poster that is meant to sell it as one of the slasher flicks which were so popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  What it actually is, has little precedent.  It feels like somebody spliced together a 1950s Disney outdoor adventure film with a 1980s porno movie.  The vibe is equal parts innocent and vicious.  It’s about two couples who go camping, only to be pursued by a man-eating murderer who is haunted by the ghosts of two dead kids.  I loved it, but for absolutely none of the right reasons.  Not entirely sure how Mystery Science Theater overlooked this one.  
Lucio Fulci is best known as the orchestrator of some of the most savagely gruesome set pieces in Italian horror films.  Here, he takes on the task of mounting a CONAN THE BARBARIAN knockoff.  If you like naked ladies, almost-naked guys,wolfmen, dolphins, and Goblin scores, this movie’s got you covered on all fronts.  I wrote about this one in depth for DailyGrindhouse.  

Aided by late nights on TCM, I was introduced this year to the films of New York underground filmmaker Amos Poe.  This is one of his more accessible efforts, the story of Johnny (Vincent Spano from OVER THE EDGE), a young gangster who takes on the New York mob with occasional help from his pal Lippy (Michael Winslow from the POLICE ACADEMY films).  The dynamic score is by Nile Rodgers, the pioneering record producer who this year played on the new Daft Punk album.  The cinematographer, Oliver Wood, later shot FACE/OFF and all three Matt Damon BOURNE movies, and this year shot both 2 GUNS and ANCHORMAN 2.  ALPHABET CITY is all about cool clothes, cool cars, and cool settings, but “cool” is already halfway to “good,” letter-wise.

Ninja movies are one of my more eccentric passions, one for which I make no apologies.  This one here is a doozy.  Shout! Factory did us right with the release of this Blu-Ray, although when it came out I saw a lot of jokes about NINJA III’s title, as if it were LEONARD PART 6 or something.  In fact, NINJA III is a tenuous sequel after all, intended to follow Cannon Films’ previous ninja epics, ENTER THE NINJA (directed by Menahem Golan of THE APPLE fame and starring Franco Nero as the world’s whitest ninja) and REVENGE OF THE NINJA, which like NINJA III was directed by Sam Firstenberg and featured an expanded role for Sho Kosugi, who in fact is the only link between the three films.  NINJA III starts with a ninja assault on a golf course, and it only gets weirder and wilder from there.  It stars Lucinda Dickey from BREAKIN’ 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO as an aerobics instructor who becomes possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja.  BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA’s James Hong plays the Father Merrin role, kinda sorta.  Yeah, this is a 1980s update of THE EXORCIST, only with aerobics and ninjas.  Which, I don’t have to tell you, is a cornucopia of wonderfulness.

Canadian heavy-metal rocker Jon-Mikl Thor is a feathered-blond dead ringer for lame late-night host Jimmy Fallon, and in this no-budget horror flick he takes on the forces of darkness in the form of some of the most amazing puppets you will ever see.  That’s amazing as in indescribably hilarious, not technologically impressive.  Never before has a shirtless blond man in a thong worked so hard in a hand-to-hand battle against a wedge of plastic.  This is something you need to see before you shuffle off the mortal sphere.

Cultists rightly revere Italian filmmaker Michele Soavi for CEMETERY MAN, or DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, but please don’t overlook his earlier film THE CHURCH, or LA CHIESA.  It’s more straight-faced and assertively creepy, but that’s no bad thing.  There are some true spooky moments in this tale of a Pandora’s box of Medieval-era devilry being opened within a church, sealing its modern-day occupants inside.  The Goblin score is great, the cinematography is bold and energetic,and the film features a young Asia Argento in her first role.  I hope to write much more about this terrific movie soon, so keep an eye out in 2014.

COOL AS ICE (1991)
A visit to Los Angeles’ Cinefamily for their heralded Heavy Midnites series gave me the chance to get acquainted with this snapshot of a moment in American history when a man named Vanilla Ice with that haircut and that demeanor was a sex symbol and a chart-topping pop act.  Bizarrely, if you give the movie a chance you will see he’s kinda good in it.  I mean, I don’t know if anything he does in this movie is intentional, but I do know it’s hilarious.  If he did all that on purpose he deserves all the shine Jim Carrey got during that decade.  COOL AS ICE is basically a musical take on THE WILD ONE.  The opening musical sequence in particular is well-shot (by Janusz Kamiński !) and well-edited, and hardly the embarrassment so many would write it off as.  Naomi Campbell hasn’t come off so well since the video to “In The Closet.”  The movie never quite regains the infectious energy of that opening sequence, but that energy is enough to ride all the way through the breezy 91-minute running time.  Check it out.  I may be crazy, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong!

Okay, with this one I prove how crazy I really am.  But since I’ve become an uncle, I’ve found that some of the most movie fun you can possibly have is with movies meant for kids that go horribly wrong.  A single mother (P.J. Soles from HALLOWEEN and STRIPES) and her two young children befriend the youngest of a forest-dwelling tribe of Bigfoots whose territory is threatened by an evil logging company.  Really, all you need to know is that it’s HARRY & THE HENDERSONS, but instead of Bigfoot being seven feet tall and played by the same guy who played the Predator, here he’s played by a little person.  The director is named Art Camacho, which is already brilliant.  Art Camacho is a badass martial artist and longtime fight coordinator for action films who somewhere along the way decided to make a kids’ movie.  LITTLE BIGFOOT is what happened.  It’s everything the trailerpromises.

Cult film favorites Doug Jones, Michael J. Anderson, TomTowles, and Dennis Dun all log time in this kung-fu fantasy, but what you really want to turn up for is the heartwarming story of a disabled child whose trip to a Chinese restaurant ends up with his voyage to a land where he helps five man-sized kangaroos battle and defeat an evil warlord with their magic and martial arts skills.  That was a long sentence, so let me summarize it thusly:  Kung-fu kangaroos.  The director, Ronny Yu, has had a long and important career in Hong Kong films.  In America, he has made this, BRIDE OF CHUCKY, and FREDDY VS. JASON.  Life is strange.

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