Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - James David Patrick ""

Monday, December 29, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer with a lifelong habit of obsessive movie watching. His current project, #Bond_age_, the James Bond Social Media Project can be found at Find him on twitter at @007hertzrumble.

---Had a great year with the backlog of unwatched titles in my collection. I made a concerted effort to tackle the unopened DVDs and Blu-rays that haunt my dreams. Watch me. Watch me. 2014 was also the first year I endeavored to Shame myself into watching the old classics that have always eluded me with my Cinema Shame project (contained more idle chatter.On to the movies that made 2014 a great year forchaining myself to the couch and furthering my self-guided cinematic education. 

Choose Me (1984)
I dont know why I ask you anything. Youre a lunatic.

Thats why you chose me. 

Lets call this a thriller. Calling Choose Me a thriller is like calling Die Hard cheerful Christmas frolic. If Ive adequately calibrated my analogy that means that Choose Me is hardly a thriller, though it borrows film noir imagery and a sense of underlying tension just as Die Hard uses tinsel and Christmas carols to background the notion of family. IMDB lists Choose Me as a comedy, drama and romance. Lets address those accusations individually. I smiled at some of the 80s flourishes and noir homages, but not once did I laugh or guffaw and I certainly didnt ROFL. The drama part well allow. If youre not laughing, there better be some drama. Romance? Theres lust and distrust and sex and loneliness but romance? Not outside a few moments of connection. Even when couples kiss and make happy, you pity the fools. Choose Me defies classification. You might see something else play out during the films 104 minutes, but what defined the film for me was the sexual tension and distrust simmering just beneath the surface, a constant state of unease and expectation of violence.

The marvel here is that director Alan Rudolph uses the film as a playground for traditional noir tropes but resists dramatic cataclysms. He litters the background with classic film noir posters and puts stilted, cryptic dialogue in the mouths of his characters. Much of the movie takes place at night, on a confined, stylized back-alley set of neon and shadow all set to the soulful, saxiful sounds of Teddy Pendergrass. The combination of the budget-restricted world and the smooth jazz creates a highly stylized, throwback noir feel. With the exception of a couple of scenes, violence only takes the foreground when these characters reach a climax of desperation. Instead, Rudolph (who also wrote the script) uses sex as the recurring weapon. The threat of sex. The need for connection. Missed opportunities and curious coincidences. I wondered how this film, devoid of contemporary genre classification, had ever been released in theaters. A quick search revealed that it opened on 2 screens in September 1984 and at most played in 54 screens on any given weekend. Question answered.

The catalyst for all of this hot and botheredness is Mickey, an apparent lunatic, pathological drifter (the excellent Keith Carradine) who stops in a dive bar owned by Eve (Lesley Ann Warren). The drifter spins yarns about being in Air Force intelligence, traveling Europe, Russia, working as a mechanic in Berlin, an award winning photographer, a poetry professor at Yale. He claims he never tells a lie or does he? Does it matter when nobody really wants to know the truth anyway?

Eve, current bar owner, former (?) lady of the night and current sexaholic lives an empty, unfulfilling life bedding men and calling into the Love Line with Dr. Nancy Love to share her problems and occasionally berate the host to assuage her own insecurities. The host (Geneviรจve Bujold), turns up at the bar to answer Eves roommate-wanted add, oblivious to their pre-existing acquaintance. The proximity to Eve and a chance meeting with Mickey begins to tear at the button-down, analytical persona of Nancys on-air persona. Eve starts to think more about commitment as she realizes shes desperately in love with Mickey. Soon everybody wants a piece of Mickey, for better or worse. 

People get slapped. Guns are brandished and sometimes fired. And most frightful of all in the world of Choose Me, someone falls in love.

Ben-Hur (1959)
One God, that I can understand; but one wife? That is not civilized... It is not generous! 

This pick serves as a confession. Id never watched Ben-Hur. Not ever. Not even by accident.  Ben-Hur was one of the inspirations behind starting Cinema Shamethe consortium of movie-watchers willing to admit the gaps in their cinematic exposure and make amends. Ill let this movie stand in for all of my other brilliant first-time watches  The Birds, Deliverance, City Lights among them. 
3 hours and 32 minutes. Quick mental calculation. 212 minutes. So thats why I never just popped Ben-Hur in for quick spin. Id seen the Chariot Racedozens of times in highlight reels and thatreally all the movie is right? A bunch of sand, Charlton Hestons glistening pectorals and a chariot race? Yes? No? How close am I?
My wife came downstairs, plopped herself on the couch and said, So whats this about anyway? I was three minutes into the OVERTURE with the word OVERTURE plastered over MichaelangelosCreation of Adam so I said, Its the OVERTURE. It happens before the movie. As I felt the lookdescend upon me, I quickly course corrected. I actually have no idea.
Okay so that wasntotally true, because as I said before: desert. glistening pecs. Chariots.
The movie opens with some seriously epic shots of the desert. (Desert. Check.) Director William Wyler wants you to know that were watching a MOTHERFLIPPING EPIC! Duly noted, Bill. And then we ease into a set of happenstance that among other things depicts the birth of Jesus.
Wife: So this is about Jesus?
Me: Apparently.
Wife: So does Chuck play Jesus?
Me: Uh, Im pretty sure he plays Ben Hur.
Wife: His names Ben?
Wife: You really dont know anything about this movie do you?
Me: I am SHAMED! I admit it! This is why Im watching it! Besides, you should pay attention, we might miss something important! (More shots of the desert, actually.)
Now lets clarify a few points for those other poor souls whove never had the pleasure. Charlton Heston plays Judah Ben-Hur. His names not Ben, FYI. And Judah is egregiously wronged, sent into slavery and eventually reborn with the aims of vengeance on those that wronged him and his family. Although the movie opens with the birth of Jesus,and Jesus makes a few brief appearances, Jesus is subtext and setting. I was at first skeptical of this device but like most everything in the movie it feeds into the OMFG EPIC scope. By the end of the film,the connections made between Jesus and Ben-Hur serve to create a vital extra-textual parallel that informs Ben-Hurs character arc. Now, thats not to say that Im not conflicted about why Ben-Hur chooses forgiveness over revenge, just that in the world of William WylerBen-Hur the shift is portrayed in lavish  dare I say gorgeous cinematic scope.
I found it impossible not to be swept up in the film. I felt like an old woman glued to her afternoonstories fanning herself during the many scenes detailing glistening pectorals (did I mention how much everyone glistens in 1080p?).  As the movie wore on past midnight, 3 hours in, I began to lose my will to go on. I was tired, hungry. Id run out oflibation during the 2nd hour. Did I pause? Did I put the ending off until tomorrow? But but butJudahs sister and mother were lepers, secretly banished to the outside of town. Would Judahs lady friend tell him the truth? Would she lie to prevent Judah from carrying out his plan of revenge against the boyhood friend that had set all of these events into motion?!? The chariot race has finally been set up as the means by which revenge will be extracted. How could I stop now? Who could stop knowing that one of the greatest moments in cinema history was just around the bend
Listen, I know Ben-Hurs a long slog. 212 minutes of exhausting scope and melodramatic rigor. But its worth it just to say that youve honestly checked off that legendary chariot race in context. And if you havent seen this movie, let me tell you, no matter what you might have imagined about that chariot race I assure you, you cant understand the catharsis unless you watch those first three hours.

The Wrong Box (1966)
I was in the water closet of the Bournemouth express when it quite unaccountably exploded, thereby extensively damaging the rest of the train. I can't really think that I was to blame, although at the time I was smoking.

Back in January, I blindly DVRd every unseen Michael Caine movie that appeared on TCMs Michael Caine day. The last one proved to be the best. 
Thanks alone to ArcherThe Double Deuceepisode Id become acquainted with the tontine concept. Once again Archer informs and illuminates. The Wrong Box concerns two brothers, the last of a familial generation and final contestants in the tontine. Last man alive wins the pot or the last man believed to be alive. A cursory familiarity with British humor and the Weekend at Bernieoeuvreshould inform The Wrong Boxs tonal direction. Oh, those comically dark and twisted Brits. 
In this Victorian anti-manners comedy. Michael Caine of all people plays one of the lone voices of reason and sanity (its all relative) among an amazing cast of lunatics including Peter Sellers (in a small role as a drunk, cat-loving doctor)Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, John Mills and Ralph Richardson. Youll get your fix of mutilated body in a barrel humor, title cards, misplaced corpses, tottering old butlers, a catchy little John Barry score, double and triple crosses, a high-speed horse-drawn hearse chase...
So yeah, I'm smitten with this little gem. A must watch for anyone with even the slightest interest in distasteful British humor.

Pennies From Heaven (1981)
"There must be some place where these songs are for real."
Im almost positive I found the impetus to finally watch Pennies From Heaven right here on Despite reading much about the film before finally committing to the viewing, I failed to understand how Herbert Ross(the man that directed Footloose, you guys!) film could simultaneously satirize and elevate the musical genre. Look no further than Steve Martin. Steve Martin has made a career of satirizing with gleeful affection. Martin, Bernadette Peters and Christopher Walken dance and lip-sync to scratchy old depression-era jazz records while playing the moviecompletely straight sounds well, it soundshilarious, right? Hilarious and absolutely heartbreaking. 
I did laugh. A lot, actually. But Ross rarely distances the films comedy from its tragedy. Its Busby Berkeley on lapsed anti-depressants. Its Fred and Gingers Blue Period. Its suicide-watch Bing Crosby. Its a miraculous tightrope walk, a constant interplay between subtext and the gleeful face-value expression of song and dance.
Arthur Parker (Martin) flounders in business. He flounders in marriage. He falls in love with a schoolteacher he meets in a music store (Peters) and flips his life upside down to open a record store and chase dreams of love and idealism. The film empathizes with its put upon characters, but cuts deeply as it explores selfish ambition, mistreatment of women, and the folly of escapist entertainment. Theres zero chance that a movie like this gets made today. Its hard to conceptualize how it was made atall, actually. 
Pennies uses cinematic artifice to turn cinema into moving art and filmed theater. Sets pull away mid-scene to reveal a stage for a song and dance number. Shots were designed to recreate popular art of the 1930s. Cinematographer Gordon Willis turns the everyday mundane details of a hardscrabble life into spectacle. If Pennies From Heaven had connected with a larger audience upon its release the movie musical might never have recovered. It eulogizes a classic era of Hollywood and serves as a gravemarker for the dissipation of the subversive 70s when filmmakers challenged the boundaries of mainstream filmmaking. Though Pennies never found commercial success, it demands appreciation with the best of that subversive (or any other) generation. 

Damsel in Distress (1937)
Miss Allen, have you ever seen a toasted marshmallow?
No, but Im dying to see that. I bet youre a scream. 

I caught this on a Fred Astaire night on TCM, watched it and promptly ordered it from the Warner Archive. As Robert Osborne introduced the flick he damn near apologized to the audience that A Damsel in Distress lacked Freds regular co-star Ginger Rogers. He spoke at great length about Joan Fontaines two left feet and said that, though she was a gamer  come what may  she could never hope to make the role her own, what with the specter of Ginger hanging over the production. 
Fred and Ginger broke their coupling after Shall We Dance, after Astaire decided he didnt need to be attached to his regular lady friend anymore. For his next project, Astaire chose an established property, a script written by P.G. Wodehouse based on a 1919 novel by P.G. Wodehouse, cast a 20-year-old Joan Fontaine, enlisted George Gershwin to write the score and buddied up with George Burns and Gracie Allen for sidekick material. Not a bad backup plan after giving Ginger the boot. 
Though much has been made about the lack of Ginger, A Damsel in Distress really only lacks the romancing through dancing. Thats the element that Astaire could never hope to create, the extra-textual partnership and audience projection upon the Fred & Ginger (TM) brand. Damsel instead amplifies the screwball elements of the plainly Wodehousian narrative involving mistaken identity, scheming Butlers and the Upper Crust acting badly. 
Astaire throws himself into the gleeful dance numbers, often solo. His percussive solo (duet?) with a drum kit to Nice Work If You Can Get stands out, a brash, boisterous and awkward cacophony. Though its impossible to dance and play the drums at the same time, Astaire turns it into a symbolic centerpiece of this solo project. I say solobecause though Astaire is, per usual, great, A Damsel In Distress stands out because of his co-stars. Burns and Allen transfer their radio act to the big screen without difficulty. The pair becomes a mobile sideshow. Gracie, especially, steals every scene in which she appears. 
Now, about Joan Fontaines left feet. Robert Osborne was absolutely correct albeit with one caveat. True, shenot a great dancer, but she doesnhave to be.She does a fine job in her one major hoofing scene with Fred. She radiates star, though one that probably wont make a career in tap shoes. She requires no apology. The novelty of seeing Joan Fontaine holding her own while plainly out of her element more than made up for the lack of whatshername
Somehow it all just works... even when it shouldn't.Some of the musical numbers go on for too long, and the conclusion takes one or two machinations too many, but by this point youre hooked on the whole misguided and overstuffed Fred Astaire gone soloproject.

The Whip and the Body (1963)
You havent changed, I see. Youve always loved violence.
Filmed almost exclusively in obscured shadows and darkness, the Bavalicious gothic horror picture serves up a case of the bumps and creeps with style to spare. Easily the most impressive visuals of any movie I watched during my #31DaysOfHorror calendar this October.
Bava (using the name John M. Old) doesnt shy away from rather overt depictions of sadomasochism. Nevenka (Daliah Lavi) strikes Kurt (Christopher Lee) with a whip. Christopher Lee stares at her, a virulent rage simmering just beneath his placidity and he says, You havent changed, I see. Youve always loved violence. He then proceeds to beat her with the whip five or six times across her back. With each lash she becomes more submissive and receptive to his brand of aggression until he falls upon her. Coitus assumed. When Kurt is killed (hes been persona non grata since arriving due to his past transgressions with Nevenka) his form continues to stalkNevenka, proceeding with some whipping and more voilent S&M from the beyond. The lust coupled witha dramatic piano score renders The Whip and the Body, at face value, a wonderfully macabre soap opera of blood and inescapable, ill-advised passion. 
Daliah Lavi and Christopher Lee turn in delicious performances and elevate the material aboveTechnicolor bodice ripping soaked in hues of green and red. This film reeks of Mario Bavas visual and narrative sensibilities. Had I not been so engrossed in the film I might have seen the ultimate twist cominglong before the FIN. This might be the best Bava film that nobody talks about (nobody I know anyway). Kino has done a magnificent job with their recent Blu-ray release.

Lair of the White Worm (1988)
Oh, good! So youve taken to our local specialty. Pickled earthworms in aspic is not to everyones taste, I can tell you.

This. Movie. Is. Hilarious.
Other than some of his early, non-representative efforts like Billion Dollar Brain and Lisztomania I dont believe Ive ever seen any of the moreconventional Ken Russell movies, the ones for which hemore widely known. The Devils andAltered States, for example. Russells reputation has never been an especially strong selling point with me.
I found Lair of the White Worm tucked away at the bottom of a top 100 Horror and Sci-Fi movies in my mid-90s published Entertainment Weekly Guide to the Greatest Movies Ever Made. Though the book sounds rather silly considering EWs current reputation, the book itself contains a collection offairly strong lists, featuring both essentials andunderrated sleeper picks. 
Based on the lowly regarded gothic novel by Bram Stoker, the movie lays bare the comical subtext of theunintentionally comical novel. Russell amplifies the subtext (Christian symbolism and phalluses for everybody!) through venom-induced hallucinations that are more z-grade music video than budgeted feature film. Starring Hugh Grant (Lord James), future Whovian Peter Capaldi (playing a Scottish archaeologist) and Amanda Donohue, Lair allows itscast to bask in the absurdity of this horror-com mishmash. Cheap props, cheaper effects and rampant punnage. Everyones in on the joke. If it is a joke. I think ita joke. I hope its a joke. Lair of the White Worm is a C-grade movie made by B-grade talent based on a Z-grade book by an A-grade writer. 
Ill conclude with some praise for Amanda Donohue, an underrated actress now rendered rather obscure.Donohue sells this movie with her over-the-moon performance as Lady Sylvia Marsh. Without herbuying in completely, Lair of the White Wormdoesnt hold together. 4-inch fangs and blue full body paint. Wowza. You should see what she does with theBoy Scout in the hot tub.


beamish13 said...

if you enjoyed PENNIES, you owe it to yourself to explore screenwriter Dennis Potter's other works, like THE SINGING DETECTIVE, DREAMCHILD (1985) and LIPSTICK ON YOUR COLLAR, not to mention the original PENNIES miniseries starring the late Bob Hoskins.

thirtyhertzrumble said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I sought out the miniseries, but I'll add the other Potters to my watchlist immediately.