Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Ken Johnson ""

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Ken Johnson

Ken is a freelance writer, editor, sometimes podcast guest and all around movie nut always on the lookout for new film experiences. Here are 10 highlights from his journey through 2013.
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2013 was a difficult year, both personally and professionally. A year filled with more peaks and valleys than usual, my movie viewing choices followed suit. The beginning of the year found me seeking out films with more of a nihilistic bent, with first time viewings of films such as Executive Action (1973), The Parallax View (1974) and Evil Dead Trap (1988), but somewhere around mid-October a change occurred. Halfway through my usual Horror film marathon in celebration of Halloween, I had a sea change. August and September had already seen the number of films I watch in a month drop down to junior high level lows; five films in all of August and only four in September. I began questioning what pleasure, if any, I was actually receiving from watching films anymore. It seemed that the old comfortable friend I’ve known since childhood had changed, possibly deserting me for good. A shocking consideration.
It was then that I took a bit of a break. I scrapped my Halloween movie marathon plans. Took some time away. I’d gotten caught up in the numbers game, keeping monthly and yearly tallies of the films I’d seen, doing my best to top the previous year’s totals and I had hit the wall. After a few weeks, I decided that I’d focus more on the quality of the films I’d choose to see, explore other genres I’d never even considered before (Romantic Comedies!?!), and not worry so much about having to see EVERYTHING within a particular genre. This refocusing has paid off in spades, allowing me to discover some gems that I might not have ever considered previously.
While 2013 was a difficult and challenging year, it was also a rewarding year and one full of new growth. Here then are 10 examples, 10 signposts along a filmic journey full of blind turns, peaks and valleys, a journey that found me off course and miles from where I thought I’d be, but a journey that’s been far more rewarding because of it.

10) NORTHVILLE CEMETERY MASSACRE (1976)
Dir. William Dear, Thomas L. Dyke
Hyperbolized in some circles as The Greatest Biker Film Ever Made! And The Ultimate Biker Film, NORTHVILLE CEMETERY MASSACRE has a lot going for it. It’s violent, nihilistic and as bloody as you’d expect any post Easy Rider (1969) film to be, with some outstanding squib work and a climactic showdown placing it firmly between The Wild Bunch (1969) and A Better Tomorrow II (1987)But, what really hooked me, what really separated this film from the rest of the pack, was the sense of “family; something no AIP biker flick had every managed to convey. These individuals dwelling on the edge of society have found themselves bound together by the laws and pressures of “normal” society, and when those pressures become too great, leading to a wrongful arrest for rape, that the feet come off the pegs, the engine revs and a quest for justice begins. This film, shot independently in Michigan in 1972 (unreleased theatrically until 1976), with its excellent use of locations and natural (real-life) characters makes the film, at times, feel like a documentary, and it’s here where its reputation is made.
Available through VCI Entertainment.

9) BOULEVARD NIGHTS (1979)
Dir. Michael Pressman
Taking place in East L.A. as the last rhythms of disco fade out, paving the way to a much darker world filled with drugs and gang violence, BOULEVARD NIGHTS is a snapshot of a city and lives in transition just before the collapse. Equal parts Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Boys N The Hood (1991), BOULEVARD NIGHTS is an anomaly that, perhaps was too honest for audiences back in 1979, but was a prescient oracle of things to come. Cool, charming and every bit as fun and funky as its better known east coast predecessor, NIGHTS goes deeper, telling the story of two brothers, one who has it all and the other who wants it and is too impatient to wait. Coupled with a slick soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin and a contrasting color palette of cool blues and burning browns, BOULEVARD NIGHTS has been highly regarded for setting the story straight, telling it like it is (was). It’s a shame more audiences didn’t take notice when it pled its case. As it is now, it’s an intriguing artifact of lives in flux and one that can still resonate today.
Available through Warner Home Archive.
8) THE CRIMINAL aka CONCRETE JUNGLE (1960)
Dir. Joseph Losey
I’m a big fan of the Parker novels by Richard Stark (pen name of author Donald Westlake) of which many film adaptations have been made, most notably John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) starring Lee Marvin, John Flynn’s The Outfit (1973) with Robert Duvall, The Split (1968) featuring Jim Brown in the lead, and 1999’s Payback with Mel Gibson (The less said about 2013’s Parker with Jason Statham, the better.). And while all of these movies are fascinating in the ways they approach the material and stretch it to expand, both successfully and all too often unsuccessfully, to the individual director’s intentions, none of them have ever gotten the Parker character “right.” THE CRIMINAL released two years prior to Parker’s initial appearance in Stark’s novel The Hunter, serves as the perfect template for what sadly has yet to come.

The filmic equivalent of a scotch-on-ice, THE CRIMINAL (U.S. title CONCRETE JUNGLE) is smooth and cool, with a helluva kick, featuring (for my money) the perfect Parker captured in the prowling presence of Stanley Baker. Baker moves through this film like a shark, swimming with his nose to the currents, never stopping, never sleeping, knowing to do so may mean his death. Both an indictment on the British penal system of the 1950s and 1960s and a riveting heist flick, THE CRIMINAL is packed with twitchy, unnerving supporting characters such as Patrick Wymark’s corrupt prison guard Sol, and Ted, the creepy cool thug as played by Nigel Green, a role distinct but evocative of Timothy Carey’s Nikki Arcane in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). Carter, the big bad, played by Sam Wanamaker, comes off so nonchalantly as to almost not even read as a threat, which is exactly how he wants it. All these characters tugging, threatening to tear apart the narrative in favor of exploring other dark avenues, only to be contained by the commanding direction of Joseph Losey.

Beautifully shot with an eye towards both plot and impact, Joseph Losey delivers yet another masterpiece in what I’m beginning to learn is his norm. Why this director isn’t more known is a mystery. And why this film isn’t better known is another mystery as well.

Available through Anchor Bay Entertainment.

7) Hellzapoppin’ (1941)
Dir. H.C. Potter
This bundle of insanity by comedy team Olsen and Johnson had been on my must see list since reading about it in the pages of Psychotronic Video magazine years ago. Surprisingly I discovered it laying there like the punch line to a forgotten joke down one of the many tubes on YouTube.
Olsen and Johnson’s skull-splitting antics, gags that cartoons would be swiping for years, are the foundation for this musical comedy tour de force. Jokes, singing, dancing, acrobatics and more jokes hit like an amphetamine-fuelled Tex Avery cartoon, leaving the viewer stunned into hysterics. I had more fun watching this than any “mainstream” comedy released in the last decade. These chaps are brilliant, and they never were more on top of their game than right here.
Also of note, is Martha Raye’s charming performance as Betty. My familiarity with her stemmed mainly from her appearances late in life on the Howard Stern Show in the late 1980s. Honestly, I never thought much of her beyond feeling a bit sorry for a comedic actress who’s spotlight had faded many years prior, not realizing what she was like in her prime. It’s here that I discovered what a knockout she truly was, both comedically and physically. She manages by sheer force of will to carve a niche for herself in the middle of all the insanity, and single-handedly steals the show; a truly herculean task.
Not available in an “official” release as of this writing, but can be found online, if you know where to look. ;0)

6) SANTO EL EMASCARADO DE PLATA Y BLUE DEMON CONTRA LOS MONSTRUOS aka SANTO AND BLUE DEMON AGAINST THE MONSTERS (1970)
Dir. Gilberto Martinez Solares
I’ve been a fan of Lucha Libre (Mexico’s theatrical style of wrestling) since first seeing it on The Incredibly Strange Film Show when episodes aired on A&E back in the late 1980s. Films centering around the legendary exploits of Mexico’s greatest superstar, El Santo, have proven difficult to find over the years, but recent discovery of a series of Santo double-feature DVDs released from Lionsgate Entertainment as part of their Nuestro Cine Classico line, had me stoked.
I got the disc home and opted to view the B side first. Santo teaming up with Blue Demon, perhaps the second greatest wrestler in all of Mexico (akin to being Batman to Santo’s Superman), to take on the creepy combined forces of The Vampire, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein, The Mummy and El Ciclope (a one-eyed, bat wing-eared monster vaguely reminiscent of Stretch Armstrong’s arch enemy, The Stretch Monster). Add to the mix a dwarven, hunchbacked mad scientist and an army of mind-controlled thugs and this film was the perfect flick for a weekend afternoon. I sat through the b/w film so much like a twisted Universal Horror film from the 1930s, enjoying it immensely and went to Facebook afterwards to sing its praises. It’s there that I discovered something astounding.
The film, whose rich black and white format had me reveling in a nostalgic Saturday afternoon flashback, was never releases in black and white at all. Due to some undetermined mishap with Lionsgate’s release of this double-feature DVD, LOS MONTROUS was inadvertently released in black and white. Instead of the garishly bright color version that originally existed, with blood and color more in keeping with a Hammer Horror color scheme than the Universal b/w I had originally assumed as being true. A jaw-dropping mistake, but completely on par with the crazy, often dismissive, way these films have been released in the U.S.
Even more surprising, after digging up a color version of the trailer on Youtube, is that I find myself preferring the black and white version, again for the way it summons up memories of watching those Universal Horror films, serials and such on Saturday afternoons all those years ago.
The movie itself is brilliant. Strange in its logic, with a style similar to the Batman TV series so popular in the 1960s, there is never a dull moment; a mashup of epic proportions.
Available in the b/w version from Lionsgate Entertainment. No information available as to the film’s availability in its intended color format.

5) SAVAGE STREETS (1984)
Dir. Danny Steinmann
A sleazy rape and revenge flick with a rock opera heart, resulting in a quintessential 1980s era action flick. One dimensional in its High Noon-style plot; the main villain is monolithically bad, the victim, purer than virgin snow. What makes this film tick is the sexy, black leather time bomb that is Brenda (played to 11 by Linda Blair). A match to the more familiar muscle machines of the 1980seasily comparable in her badassery to the likes of Stallone or Schwarzenegger, Brenda isa jungle cat, prowling the SAVAGE STREETS in search of revenge. Combined with a crossbow and a killer soundtrack with songs by John Farnham, this film practically pulsates with each frame.

This film has a pretty strong cult following, but never really landed on my radar until after I saw Hobo With A Shotgun (2011) and saw many references to the genre and SAVAGE STREETS in particular when discussing the Rutger Hauer film. SAVAGE STREETS is better. I enjoyed the insanity of Hobo With A Shotgun, its homages to the1980s, but STREETS lived it, and continues to thrive. Brutal with a deep menace uncoiling through its running time, STREETS is also disarmingly charming as in the scenes with Brenda, her deaf sister Heather (played to puritanical heights by Linnea Quigley) and the rest of Brenda’s girl gang, walking the streets and having fun on a Saturday night.
Now that the film has become more and more available, I can only hope a re-release of the soundtrack will soon follow.
Available in a 2-disc special edition from 101 Distribution ADA

4) THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT (1970)
Dir. Herbert Ross
Based on a stage play written by Bill Manhoff and adapted for the screen by Buck Henry, THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT is another of those films flexing its muscle, exploring its surroundings and testing the constraints of what was deemed “appropriate” for film-goers at the dawn of the 1970s.
George Segal has become a favorite of mine with endearing rolls in films like No Way To Treat A Lady (1968), Born To Win (1971) and California Split (1974), so seeing him randomly appear on my TV in this, the definition of a “quirky” comedy, on a weekend afternoon was a welcome surprise. I never considered myself much of a fan of Barbra Streisand’s work prior to this film, but accompanied by Segal, I figured, “why not?” I’m thankful it did.
This film fell in my lap at a time when I was going through a bit of a crisis of the soul. The old ways I had done things, thought about things, and assumed I’d always think about and do things was changing, or simply not working anymore. My interest in many things that life had to offer was waning and movies, one of my chief pleasures in life were unexpectedly becoming a chore to sit through. I’d taken some time away, focused on other things, but when this movie popped up, it sort of “clicked” in my mind as something different, a film that might be “fun.”
What I found was hilarious, sexy and edgy. The definition of “quirky” and all-together entertaining. Streisand, a performer I had never before found to be particularly vivacious, practically sizzles in her performance as Doris, a sometimes “actress,” and oftentimes prostitute. Segal, as Felix, is an open nerve, twitchy in the extreme, and someone, in many ways, I could identify with. Their chemistry in this film, percolates, with witty barbs and snappy comebacks, and odd circumstances that I found to be truly refreshing.

This film may not be to everyone’s tastes, but like the song says, “You can’t always get what you want. But, if you try sometimes, you get what you need.” And this film came along just when I needed it.

Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

3) THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER (1962)
Dir. Timothy Carey
Number one on my list of Holy Grail films was this independent film written, produced, directed by and starring Timothy Carey. Carey is legendary for delivering powerful supporting actor performances in film’s as diverse as The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Bikini Beach (1964) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). The thing about Carey, eccentric in the extreme, is that you never knew what you were going to get, but every performance would sure to be riveting. No more so than this.
I’d first heard of THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER back in the pages of Psychotronic Video magazine years ago, where the magazine’s founder, writer and editor Michael J. Weldon spread the legend of Timothy Carey and trumpeted this film as Carey’s crowning achievement. The film, had always been difficult to find, but recent airings on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel (airings I sadly missed), made me optimistic that a mainstream release would soon follow. VHS tapes and a DVD were available for sale from Carey’s own production company, but being perpetually plagued with a shortness of income, I found myself reluctant in parting with cash for the purchase of something so obscure sight unseen. It came as a surprise recently, upon doing a random Google search on the title, I discovered its availability as a rental on iTunes. This was something I could afford; dipping my toes into the insanity without “fully” committing.
I’m glad I did, and I will be purchasing a copy as quickly as possible. Weldon’s trumpeting of SINNER as a tour de force was entirely profound and accurate, but possibly even sold the film short. Part Jim Jones, part L. Ron Hubbard and part Elvis with a quest for empire that Scarface would admire, THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER is one man’s quest to become a God, told in a style that plays like a found footage video diary wrapped in a Jack Chick tract. Rampagingly odd with a tender heart and a wicked sense of humor, I can honestly say, I’ve never seen anything like it. The closest thing being if Paul Anderson’s The Master (2012) were to have the musical numbers from Clambake (1967) incorporated within. SINNER is a work of unbridled passion, highly, highly recommended with hopes that it’ll find its way into the hands of the folks at Criterion for the complete “bells and whistles” treatment one of these days.
Available for online rental and purchase from iTunes. Available on DVD from Absolute Films.

2) LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977)
Dir. Richard Brooks
This film is brilliant in its delivery, charming and staggering, with an ending that left me completely shattered. Very few films have ever registered the heavy emotional impact on me that GOODBAR did. The closest being Le M├ępris aka Contempt (1963), another film I adore, but another I don’t think I ever want to see again.
Diane Keaton, in her second big performance of 1977 (alongwith Annie Hall), stars as Theresa, a young woman leavinghome for the first time, learning to live on her own in New York City. Keaton received the Academy Award for Best Actress forher role in Annie Hall, but her multi-faceted performance as Theresa was, in my opinion, the better part. Endearing from the start, Theresa learns as we learncompiling her successes andher mistakes into a life she’s learning to call her own.
But a plot that could easily be considered merely a film adapation of The Mary Tyler Moore Show takes a different, edgier turn. Along with Theresa’s awakening independence, is a burgeoning sexual awareness, a desire for sexual independence that leads to the drammatic tension the film pivots upon.
Known more for being an early film roll for co-star Richard Gere, LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR is so much for than the sum of its parts. A parable for big city living in the late 1970s, its message still resonnates loudly in today’s society. If the last few paragraphs intrigue you, then do yourself a favor. Avoid reading plot details of the film or its ending. Just seek out a copy and let it play out on its own accord. It’s a shame this film isn’t more readily accessible. As it is, I had to seek out a gray market edition after a proposed official DVD release fell through. Here’s hoping the folks at Criterion or elsewhere will see its value and seek to give it the full respect this film so truly deserves.
Availability unknown.
1) MURPHY’S ROMANCE (1985)
Dir. Martin Ritt
Turns out, Murphy is my hero. It’s taken me a long time to realize that. 44 years all told. I’ve looked up to others over time. Batman, Evel Knievel, Han Solo all played part in my development. But it wasn’t until this year that everything came together and just oh so casually…”clicked.”
I’ve been a James Garner fan most of my life. I used to love watching The Rockford Files as a kid, in first run episodes and later in re-runs. I loved how he was always a nice guy who got in over his head when he tried to do the nice guy thing and help his friends, whether they deserved it or not. I’d see Garner in other roles from time to time, in movies like Tank (1984), Grand Prix (1966), The Great Escape (1963). Always cool. Tough. No nonsense.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized Garner wasn’t really “acting.” That was him. Oh sure, different parts of his personality would be more dominant in a given role, but that smooth going charisma belying an uncompromising backbone is all Jim.
I’d always thought that Rockford was Garner’s pinnacle character, the one character that comprised all the elements of Garner’s life into one whole. That was before I met Murphy.
Watching Murphy’s Romance I realized completely, this is the man I want to be when I grow up. Rugged and easy going, like all of Garner’s other characters, Murphy’s is a life that’s been lived in. He’s experienced the joys and hardships of a life met one-on-one, on the most simplest of terms. He’s learned a lot and lost even more. He’s had more than his share of darkness, but he’s kept on living, more as a thumb in the eye of the devils that have plagued him, but with every new day is another opportunity. Then he meets Emma, played by Sally Field, and at an age when most men would become resigned to their fate, hope springs anew.
Emma is just as stubborn, trying to carve out a life as a divorced, single mother one-on-one, the best she can. Trying hard, but failing. That’s where a chance encounter with Murphy gets the plot rolling and those charms of Garner’s (and Field’s too) come shining through.
This film is a pair of comfortable old boots, worn and wrinkled but with a pair of soles (souls) with a lot of life left in ‘em. Some critics have said the film is too leisurely paced, taking nearly an hour before the dramatic tension begins with the entrance of Emma’s ex-husband Bobby, played by Brian Kerwin. This criticism, I feel, misses the point. It’s the naturally slow introduction to these characters that makes their eventual romance (Oh c’mon, it’s not a spoiler if it’s in the title!) sing true. Our slow discovery of what makes Emma and Murphy tick in the first half of the film matches their own slow revelation within. It’s this opportunity to “breathe” that makes these characters truly live.
I never thought I’d wind up singing the praises of a romantic comedy. This genre of film had never been anything I had ever felt interesting prior to 2013. But after seeing MURPHY’S ROMANCE three times in one week, I found myself wishing I could live in that film; hang out at the corner drugstore. Talk to Murphy. Be his friend. Ask his advice. It’s then that I realized that the best advice he could give, is the most simple, just “breathe.” And any day above ground is another day to get it right.
Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

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