Rupert Pupkin Speaks: April 2014 ""

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Underrated Detective/Mystery films

Welcome to my new list series! Hopefully I can keep these going for a while, but they may tend to get a bit specialized like this. I must admit that I've been really getting into this kind of film a lot more in the past three years so many of these have only been seen by me for the first time somewhat recently. The movies and lists should be rather varied in this series as the scope is a bit wide which will allow for private eye movies, police procedurals and other mystery-based films. Hope you enjoy!
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CHARLIE CHAN AT THE WAX MUSEUM (1940; Lynn Shores)
My favorite of the Chan films that I've seen(about ten or so). This feels like a cross between Agatha Christie and Universal Horror. Also feels like something that John Carpenter might possibly have looked at before making THE THING. Great atmosphere on a low budget.



THE LAST OF SHEILA(1973; Herbert Ross)
Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim penned this fantastic whodunnit with a ridiculous cast. I know I rave about casts a lot here but this one is truly outstanding: Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, James Coburn, James Mason, Ian McShane, Raquel Welch, and Joan Hackett.

PENGUIN POOL MURDER (1932; George Archainbaud)
If ever a woman was born to play a role, Edna May Oliver was born to play Hildegarde Withers. She reminds me an indignant Carol Burnett on some level. Seeing she and James Gleason Play off each other makes it easy to see why this series of films was so popular(if perhaps too short lived). Oliver as the titular spinster school teacher/detective is a no-nonsense gal with little time or patience to suffer fools. Gleason's Inspector Piper is equally ill-equipped to deal with idiots so they shuffle them aside as they take in clues and motives to analyze on their way to crime solving. PENGUIN POOL MURDER is probably the best of all the Hildegarde Withers films as it is a tight, clever whodunnit with some interesting suspects and an intriguing locale (a local aquarium). Part of the Warner Archive Hildegarde Withers Mystery Collection.

THE LATE SHOW (1977; Robert Benton)
I adore this flick and it is another that I find fascinating in that it came out in 1977. Though it may not have literally been in theaters at the same time as STAR WARS, I always imagine some older couple reading the newspaper and trying to decide if they should see that sci-fi thingy or the Art Carney movie. Anyway, Carney is fantastic in this and he plays an aging detective who still uses words like "Dolly" to describe women. In fact the whole movie is laced with wonderful film noir-ish dialogue like that and I love it. Carney's detective is put on the case of finding a lost cat for an adorable flibbertigibbet (Lilly Tomlin), but it turns into something bigger than that. The cat tie-in makes it a nice double with THE LONG GOODBYE.

CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE (1935; Michael Curtiz)
2012 was really the year of Warren William for me. Saw a bunch of his films(many will show up in part 2 of my list). Great actor that has this charismatic quality of a Barrymore of some kind. Here he returns as Perry Mason in what may be my favorite entry in the series(Warner Archive put out a nice set). Allen Jenkins in a recurring role as 'Spudsy' gives the film a boost as does having the great Michael Curtiz as its director.
Part of the Perry Mason Mysteries Collection from Warner Archive.

PHANTOM LADY (1944; Robert Siodmak)
From IMDB -"A beautiful secretary risks her life to try to find the elusive woman who may prove her boss didn't murder his selfish wife."
If only folks could find help like this these days! Anyway, it's a tremendous little noir mystery and only recently arrived on DVD via this "Dark Crimes" TCM set:
http://shop.tcm.com/detail.php?p=382488&SESSID=406ca502f1841539f093dcea1bc521ac
The fact that it also includes THE GLASS KEY and THE BLUE DAHLIA makes it a no-brainer kind of purchase.

CUTTER'S WAY (1981; Ivan Passer)
While it is nice to see John Heard crop up in things like SHARKNADO and other such schlock, it saddens me deeply on another level because I think he is/was one of the great actors of the 1980s. People will always remember him from his roles in HOME ALONE and BIG, but far too few have seen his turns in CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER and CUTTER'S WAY. Here he plays Alex Cutter, an embittered and crippled alcoholic Vietnam veteran. He has an odd friendship with Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) a sort of drifter gigolo and when Bone witnesses a murder, Cutter takes it upon himself to help investigate it. This film is remarkable and I am hoping for a Blu-ray release of it at some point.

THE BIG FIX (1978; Jeremy Kagan)
Richard Dreyfuss in one of his best roles as an ex-activist private detective Moses Wine. Sadly, this film has never been on DVD so folks don't really know about it. It was on Netflix Instant for a stretch so keep an eye out for it to pop up there again. I spoke about the film at length on the Forgotten Films Podcast:
http://forgottenfilmcast.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/forgotten-filmcast-episode-12-the-big-fix/


NIGHT MOVES (1975; Arthur Penn)
Not only one of my favorite detective films, but one of my favorite films all-time. Amazing Gene Hackman performance, right up there with his turns in other 70s favorites of mine like THE CONVERSATION and SCARECROW. Hackman had a run of perfect films around this time and this is one of them. It's also one of the best "neo-noir" films ever made.


MYSTERY TEAM (2009; Dan Eckman)
I was lucky enough to see this a little bit before it's official 'release' (which was sadly quite limited) and I just loved it. It seemed to me a cult classic in the making right out of the gate. Just a quirky oddball comedy with a silly premise, but the fact that the Derrick Comedy players took these characters into extreme places and in a very R-rated direction really makes the movie stand out. Many of you are now familiar with Donald Glover at this point I'd assume, but this was early on for him and he is showing all the great comedic instincts we've come to know and love here.
Appears to be on Hulu at the moment:
http://www.hulu.com/watch/369551

SATAN MET A LADY(1936; William Dieterle)
Interesting screwball comedy take on THE MALTESE FALCON. Not recommended for all, but Warren William fans will enjoy.  

REMEMBER LAST NIGHT?(1935; James Whale)
Enjoyable, breezy murder-mystery-comedy from the director of FRANKENSTEIN & BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Kim Morgan's list from last year had this on it:
http://rupertpupkinspeaks.blogspot.com/2012/02/kim-morgans-favorite-film-discoveries.html 

GUMSHOE (1971; Stephen Frears)
Albert Finney plays a guy who calls bingo in a nightclub and he's looking for a change in his life. To facilitate said change, he buys a trench coat and hat and advertises himself as a private eye in the newspaper. The resulting adventure is quite a neat little self-aware mystery. Released on dvd as one of Sony Home Entertainment's "Martini Movies" (a silly name for a great group of films actually).



Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Underrated Westerns - Jon Abrams (The Final Roundup!)

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 Resumeand check him out on Twitter:@jonnyabomb.
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PURSUED (1947)
It’s pushing the parameters of the task at hand to call PURSUED an “underrated” Western. It’s been name-checked by Martin Scorsese on several occasions. That kind of rating is right on the level. But the further we get from the days of the Hollywood studio system – and we were pretty far already by the time I took my first look at these movies – the less certain we can be that all of us have seen the same basics. It’s fair to assume any decent film enthusiast has seen THE SEARCHERS, but less apparent that THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE is as familiar, and MY DARLING CLEMENTINE even less likely. And these are John Ford movies – Ford has plenty more name recognition than Raoul Walsh, whose most widely-known movie, I’d wager, isWHITE HEAT. Raoul Walsh was a studio craftsman who, like many directors at the time, was comfortably crossing genre boundaries. He made plenty of gangster pictures and plenty of Westerns, butPURSUED is a case where the two genres merged like fingers clasped in desperate last-minute prayer.
Like John Ford’s MY DARLING CLEMENTINE,PURSUED is a Western shot (in this case by the legendary James Wong Howe) a whole lot like a film noir. But Ford’s movie only really looked like noir. Its thematic pre-occupations are consistent with Ford’s other work – the loner who joins a community and also the one who doesn’t.MY DARLING CLEMENTINEis a John Ford Western, only darker. On the other hand, with PURSUED Walsh takes the frontier terrain and has Howe flood it with ink. Darkness so fully infestsPURSUED that only one star could bear it.
Robert Mitchum started in war movies and certainly made his share of Westerns, but he was best suited for film noir. His heavy-lidded gaze wasn’t quite an Eastwood squint, but it did befit a guy who seemed at ease in dimly-lit saloons and back alleys. The doomed romanticism of Mitchum’s onscreen aura most often cast him in the hero mold, but he was a darker hero who thrived in the films of a dark era, far from the bullish American-ism of John Wayne and no closer to the steadfast nobility of Henry Fonda. Mitchum never looked as comfortable in the wide open expanses of the Western, which is why PURSUED turns the lights down for him.
At the same time, Mitchum plays a more tortured role here than he did almost anywhere else. His character, Jeb Rand, is plagued into adulthood by the childhood memories of his family being killed in front of him. He survived and was taken in by a woman known as Mrs. Callum –Judith Anderson, more likable here but better known as the spooky governess in Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA(not the most reassuring parental figure Walsh could have cast). Jeb is brought up alongside Callum’s two children, Adam and Thor, the latter played by the lovely Teresa Wright, another Hitchcock alumna who starred in SHADOW OF A DOUBT. Jeb loves Thor and the feeling is mutual, and if that bothers the viewer than Adam can serve as a stand-in, because he’s opposed to the union. Adam isn’t Jeb’s only problem, since far more nefarious is another, elder Callum, Grant (Dean Jagger, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK), a manipulator and murderer who turns out to be the one who originally massacred the Rand family.
Obviously, there’s more than enough explosive interpersonal psychodrama to the story already, but what makes PURSUED even more uncommon is the punctuation of the flashbacks. They have a potent energy even now; no doubt they were incredibly intense in 1947. Jeb Rand is pursued at points by Grant Callum, yes, but more than that, Jeb Rand is pursued by his nightmarish past. That’s what it’s all about, and though I’ve emphasized the uncommon psychology of the piece, it’s still a Raoul Walsh movie, generally more exciting than therapy.
THE HILLS RUN RED (1966)
In hindsight, THE HILLS RUN RED looks more like the title for a horror movie than for a Western. It might make you think of THE HILLS HAVE EYES. It might even make you think of THE HILLS RUN RED, a lesser-known and more recent slasher flick which may or may not have taken the inspiration. THE HILLS RUN RED is a 1966 “spaghetti” Western that came very near the beginning of the onslaught of foreign-made action films about the American West, one of the most incongruous of all genres and therefore maybe my single favorite.
It isn’t clear which was the first “spaghetti” Western, or when exactly it was released. It wasn’t A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, although the success of that one essentially ignited the entire movement, along with establishing the template, solidified by 1965’s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. In “spaghetti” Westerns, the heroes were overall more ambiguously heroic, the villains were far more vicious, and the action more explicitly violent than any Hollywood Westerns not made by Sam Peckinpah. Sometimes the hero is helped by a veteran killer (played inTHE HILLS RUN RED by Dan Duryea), sometimes he has a comedy sidekick, and sometimes he has to go it alone. By 1966 there were a few dozen “spaghetti” Westerns – the most significant entries from that year were Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY, Sergio Corbucci’sDJANGO, and arguably Damiano Damiani’s A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL. Most aficionados don’t rank THE HILLS RUN RED as highly, which is probably fair.
But I’m into THE HILLS RUN RED for several reasons. If director Carlo Lizzani doesn’t have the bombastic visuals and controlled compositions of a Sergio Leone (because no one does!), there’s still a pretty great Ennio Morricone score – not his finest, but one of his very many pleasurable ones. If the violence isn’t quite as horrific and wince-inducing as you’ll find in a Corbucci Western, it’s still fairly intense when it comes – screenwriter Piero Regnoli wrote as many horror movies as anything (NIGHTMARE CITY, the sorta-zombie epic with pivotal aerobics scenes, is one of his). And if star Jeffrey Hunter doesn’t quite have the charisma of a Clint Eastwood or a Franco Nero, there’s always supreme wackadoo Henry Silva as the villainous “Mendez” – he’s Lee Van Cleef if Lee Van Cleef had been a total weirdo. It’s one of the strangest, most enjoyable performances the genre ever produced, and apparently it made Silva’s name overseas, leading to a lucrative overseas career that found him anchoring crime films with unsurpassed kookiness.
Lastly, I like THE HILLS RUN RED because it has the one thing the Leone/Eastwood trio of films don’t – a compelling female lead. Nicoletta Machiavelli (great name) didn’t make a whole lot of movies, and you can probably only see her in Corbucci’s NAVAJO JOE and in an uncredited cameo in Sergio Sollima’s FACE TO FACE, but she’ll stay with you. For my money she’s one of the three most gorgeous women ever to appear in a “spaghetti” Western, and while unfortunately women didn’t usually get enough to do in Westerns and this is not really an exception, she has an intriguing sadness to her. You don’t often get the sense – in any action movie of any era – that anyone is particularly affected by the carnage they’ve witnessed, but she provides that here.

COMPAÑEROS (1970)

With DJANGO, Sergio Corbucci made the single most influential “spaghetti” Western outside of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, and with THE GREAT SILENCE, Corbucci made a straight-up masterpiece, regardless of genre. But DJANGO is pretty damn grisly and THE GREAT SILENCE quite possibly has the downiest down ending of any movie I’ve ever seen. With COMPAÑEROS he had a little more fun.
COMPAÑEROS borders on slapstick, quite frankly. The odd-couple pairing of the two heroes is apparent before either of them says a word: Cuban-born Tomás Milián, as he so often did, plays a Mexican, in this case a beret-wearing revolutionary, whereas the very Italian Franco Nero goes very blond to play very Swedish. Nero is uncommonly animated in the role, where he plays a mercenary come to Mexico during the revolution and reluctantly paired with Milián’s character, who nicknames Nero “The Penguin.”
There is, no doubt, plenty to be said about Italian filmmakers using American genre trappings to make a period film about Mexican politics, but that isn’t as fun to talk about as Jack Palance’s character, an American who is out to destroy Nero. I know I said Henry Silva was pretty weird in THE HILLS RUN REDbut I’m pretty sure Jack Palance out-freaks him here. Palance plays the part with a wooden arm, which he lost when his pet hawk pecked it off to save him from a crucifixion (long story, but it’s why he hates the Penguin). That might be a somewhat atypical tale which is why Palance’s character carries the simple name of “John.” Another thing to know about John is that he’s a total stoner. Homes beat Cheech & Chong to the movies by eight years.
At one point John gets the better of his two enemies, and has them buried up to their necks in sand. This is surely upsetting to those in that predicament, but to the rest of us that is never not funny. COMPAÑEROS is maybe the single best guys-buried-up-to-their-necks-in-sand movies in a highly limited subgenre that also includes CREEPSHOWTHE SCORPION KING, and ONE CRAZY SUMMER. This movie truly is an odd duck – sorry: penguin – but it’s as fun as the Ennio Morricone theme song is rousing. Just try to get it out of your head. Don’t worry, you won’t want to.
TAKE A HARD RIDE (1975)
This is one of those movies that sounds so great it can’t help but disappoint. For example, I have always deliberately avoided the movieCONGO because I have the vague awareness that it pits some combination of Bruce Campbell, Ernie Hudson, Tim Curry, and Joe Don Baker against a small army of super-intelligent gorillas. There is just no way the movie they made can ever match the one that exists already in my head.
So it is with TAKE A HARD RIDE, directed by Antonio Margheriti, who the year before had made a Shaw Brothers Western teaming Lee Van Cleef with Hong Kong kung fu film star Lo Lieh. This time Van Cleef is back to playing the heavy, again a bounty hunter as he had been in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and THE BIG GUNDOWN. His quarry: Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and occasionally Jim Kelly, just for that kung fu flavor. Van Cleef and Brown had teamed up before in EL CONDOR but now you get to see them as adversaries.
One of a few strange things about TAKE A HARD RIDE is that, its Italian director and Spanish locations aside, it’s a “spaghetti” Western written by Americans, co-produced by 20th Century Fox, and sporting a [very fine] score by Jerry Goldsmith. It’s spaghetti-and-ketchup. I love the title, but there’s not overly much to love otherwise. Antonio Margheriti was an astoundingly prolific filmmaker but I’ve never seen a film of his I found particularly interesting anywhere past the concept and casting. TAKE A HARD RIDE feels slack, even dull, and that’s sometimes during scenes where things are exploding. Also Lee Van Cleef sports a truly unfortunate hairdo in this movie. Not sure why nobody attended to that.
But still, what this movie does for the imagination – imagine how cool it could have been! THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY with Jim Brown and Fred Williamson.THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY is probably my favorite movie but this could potentially have bested it. You’d have to send Sergio Leone in for that mission.
THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID (1972)
The eccentric, tremendously enjoyable 1972 Western THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID is a lesser-known trinket in the filmography of its writer & director, Philip Kaufman, who is probably best known for THE RIGHT STUFF, which he made a decade later.  What those two films have in common is their exploration of male comraderie and conflict, resentment and jealousy in the face of fame, and how these positive and negative emotions can so often be intertwined.
In THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID, Kaufman looks at the notorious Old West outlaw James/Younger gang, who have been examined and demythologized in films as diverse as JESSE JAMES(1939), THE LONG RIDERS(1980), and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007).
Cliff Robertson, who helped produce the film, is charming and intense in one of his career-best roles as Cole Younger, the perpetually underrated cohort of Jesse James.  If you only know and love Cliff Robertson from his role as Uncle Ben in the Sam Raimi SPIDER-MAN films, you’ll be elated at what a jaw-busting shit-kicker he is in this film.  Robertson’s innate likability centers the film, and gives it what melancholy it has, as the more notorious and much more vicious Jesse James chafes under Cole Younger’s leadership to the point that it eventually splits the gang.
Jesse James is played, inTHE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID, by none other than ROBERT DUVALL!  Here, Duvall was already more than a decade into his legendary career, and at this point, rapidly accelerating in the widespread esteem that he’s enjoyed ever since — this was the first of his movies to be released after THE GODFATHER (also in 1972).  The topic of fame is a pertinent one because it factors into the tension between the two lead characters, James and Younger, just as much as their bank-robbing methodology does.  Cliff Robertson may even have been the bigger star at the time, but Duvall’s Jesse James is more showy, more attention-grabbing, more impudent.  For modern audiences, Duvall is probably the more recognizable, which works even more to the proper effect.  While we relate to and care more for Cliff Robertson’s portrayal, we also understand why Jesse James is the more famous name.  But it’s quite clear why Cole Younger lived the longer life.
THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID, has plenty more to recommend it:  The cinematography is by the late, great Bruce Surtees (DIRTY HARRYHIGH PLAINS DRIFTERWHITE DOG).  There are some terrifically edited shoot-outs, a naked lady, a man with no mouth (the great, recently-departed character actor Luke Askew), and, in a fascinating digression, an entire old-fashioned baseball game.
This is an entertaining, poppy, tonally-fascinating American Western, and a compelling deconstruction of myth and legend on the part of Philip Kaufman – particularly considering that he was only four years away from writingTHE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, one of the greatest, most savage deconstructionist Westerns ever made.  Not a bad warm-up at all.

Raro Video - HALLUCINATION STRIP on Blu-ray

HALLUCINATION STRIP (1975; Lucio Maraccini)
Outside of HAROLD AND MAUDE, it seems that the films of Mr. Bud Cort are rather difficult to find. I can think if at least a few off the top of my head (TED & VENUS, ELECTRIC DREAMS, WHY SHOOT THE TEACHER) that aren't readily available on DVD (at least in the states), let alone Blu-ray. It must be some kind of conspiracy. Thankfully BREWSTER MCCLOUD has been a available for some time at least. Now another of his lesser seen items finally sees the light of day (and in high-definition) thanks to Raro.
HALLUCINATION STRIP is certainly a film of its time. It has a certain kinship with movies like DEALING and THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT (which also features Cort), but differs in it's Rome setting and that it gives Cort another rare leading role. It also shares some similarities with films like EASY RIDER and JOE as well (tonally at least).
HALLUCINATING STRIP is an interesting 70s hybrid though, part crime film and part drug movie. The crime/investigative side of the movie is not all that strong, but as a psychedelic drug flick it is interesting and the overall vibe is memorable enough (even if the movie is a little structurally weak at times). Apart from the movies I mentioned previously, this also has a lengthy hallucination/drug trip scene at one point that puts it in the same league as something like Corman's LSD-spoliation 'classic' THE TRIP. Though these sequences can seem a bit silly at times in hindsight, I have a certain nostalgia for them nonetheless. These kaleidoscopic curios can be such oddball nonsequitors and they have all but disappeared from movies today. One recent example I can think of is in something like the Coen Brother's film THE BIG LEBOWSKI wherein Jeff Bridges' "Dude" character takes a literal magic carpet ride and ends up in a Busby Berkely-esque bowling alley. Even this bit of weirdness seems more narratively coherent than the drug trip excursions of late 60s and 70s films. As within HALLUCINATION STRIP, they have no need of any logic other than experimental dream logic and that in and of itself can be an enjoyable departure. As with the set pieces in classical musical cinema, the movie itself can stop and let these drug trips take their course. Another one I'd compare this to is some of the sequences in the Monkees psych-classic HEAD. HALLUCINATION STRIP has a bit of a darker edge to it than others I've seen, but that meshes well with its genre mashup-ness. I still think it'd make an interesting double feature with the aforementioned STRAWBERRY STATEMENT.

The HALLUCINATION STRIP Blu-ray comes with an essay/booklet which touches on the film's somewhat mysterious director Lucio Marcaccini as well as a brief history of LSD and psychedelia in general.
Additionally, the disc has a video interview with Film Editor Giulio Berruti, who was editor on this film as well as the 1973 cult item BABA YAGA. This 20-minute on-camera interview entitled "Hallucinating Editing" features Berruti discussing his experience on the film and how he became involved. He tells a rather fascinating story of being invited by the film's producer to help salvage films on several cases. I guess he was typically called in later in the process to help stitch together some films that needed help. In this case he was called in after the first week of shooting because the director was not really able to do what he needed to do and the set was quite disorganized. The footage that Berruti had seen at the time was not very easily put together and was rather mismatched. Ultimately it's an interesting portrait of a troubled production and it kind of explains some of the looseness of the narrative and how it does feel a touch slapdash overall. It also makes the genre mix seem a bit less intentional than I had first assumed. A fascinating interview.


DEATH OCCURRED LAST NIGHT (1970; Duccio Tessari)
Like HALLUCINATION STRIP, DEATH OCCURED LAST NIGHT is also a genre cocktail of sorts in that it combines elements of the police procedural with the classic Italian genre of the Giallo film. As I mention below, an apt comparison story wise might be to a film like Paul Schrader's HARCORE ( which this movie precedes by almost a decade). The plot concerns a man's search for his daughter who has apparently been sold into sexual slavery. It's definitely a "voyage into the underbelly" kind of film and as you might imagine, it being an Italian film, that underbelly is pretty seedy to say the least. One thing that stands out from the opening frames of the movie is the music. The opening theme almost feels like a Bond film. It features a prominent female vocalist that is a bit bombastic and overall a bit more pop-feeling ( of this period at least) than I expected. It takes some getting used to for sure, but it certainly makes the film feel different than most Italien films I've seen before (especially those with such gritty subject matter comparable to this). 
Director Duccio Tessari has interesting roots in Italian cinema. He was initially a prolific screenwriter and worked with industry genre giants like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci. He penned the epic classic FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (my favorite Leone film) and went on from that to direct his own western, A PISTOL FOR GRINGO (both circa 1964). His career as a director had enough variety to it that it is no surprise that he would take on a melange like DEATH OCCURED LAST NIGHT.

This Blu-ray includes a fully illustrated booklet with an essay by Chris Alexander (editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine and GOREZONE). Here, Alexander talks about the hard-to-define amalgam that is DEATH OCCURRED LAST night and how it is something of a combination of Paul Schrader's HARDCORE and Joel Schumacher's 8MM (which is a rather deft and accurate analysis ). Also included on the Blu-ray is 7-minute  on-camera introduction to the film with Chris Alexander. Alexander certainly is a good choice to intro this movie as he is clearly a big fan of not only this film, but also of director Tessari in general. I found it advantageous to watch this intro before I viewed the movie especially because of his mention of the score and how it was something that he initially rejected, but has since come to see as an integral and unique and memorable part of the film. Being prepped in that way helped keep me on board with it more than I would have.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Underrated Westerns - George J G White

George White writes a blog called 'A Teenager's Guide to Trash'.
http://ateenagersguidetotrash.blogspot.com 
He can be found on twitter here:
https://twitter.com/GeorgeW28578312 
And Facebook here:

http://www.facebook.com/george.white.925059
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Grayeagle (1977)
Charles B Pierce's films always feel weird to me. I suppose they feel "wrong" but not in a bad way. He's an exploitation filmmaker merely because he began with fake documentaries and regionally-made genre films. but his films are period-set and have olde Hollywood actors (in this case Ben Johnson and Jack Elam, and has Lana Wood essentially reprising her role from The Searchers but as an adult), and lush scores, and kind of imitation Hollywood feel, yet have at times noticeably low budgets and odd exploitative quirks. They're extremely well made, when they shouldn't be. This case, it's a stodgy pro-Native American western with Alex Cord in brownface as the titular Cheyenne kidnapping Wood as Johnson's daughter, so Johnson and supposed Indian friend  Iron Eyes Cody attempt to rescue Beth. However, there's a twist. 

Carry On Cowboy (1966)
Being raised in the UK, I have a penchant for the Carry On films. Raised from infancy on these uncouth, cheeky, unsubtle, politically correct but frequently fun films. This entirely British-made western (an oddity) may have bad American accents from the usual gang (though South African-born Sid James, famed for his roles as Cockneys actually does the same faux-Yank accent as the Rumpo Kid as the one he'd been using in various B-pictures such as Ken Hughes' Joe Macbeth). It is set in Stodge City, and is the Western debut for Jim Dale, who'd later do the same schtick in DIsney's Hot Lead and Cold Feet, but in genuine American surroundings and not the woods around Pinewood. It also has Bernard Bresslaw as a Native American, in other of his ethnicities (giant in Hawk the Slayer, cyclops in Krull, Indian in Carry on Up The Khyber, African in Carry On Up the Jungle, Martian in Dr. Who...)

Hannie Caulder (1970)
Tigon's attempt at a British western, made in Spain, directed by Burt Kennedy fresh from his James Garner pictures, with Raquel Welch as a lead seeking rape-revenge, Robert Culp, Strother Martin, a post-Wild Bunch Ernest Borgnine and again Jack Elam as brothers, Christopher Lee and Diana Dors in Brit-quota-assuring roles, Stephen Boyd in a cameo (possibly also for the same reasons as Lee and Dors, though he's uncredited). It's a bit like a kind of Britsploitation True Grit but with Raquel Welch as Mattie Ross and Culp as both Cogburn and LeBeef. 

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
Another Spanish-made British co-production, this is an underrated Ray Harryhausen picture. Though it has plotholes (where does the Dawn Horse go?) and James Franciscus in Made-in-China Heston doll autopilot, it is certainly great fun. Gwangi is one of Harryhausen's best creatures. Some of the integrated live action/animation is superb. Lawrence Naismith is good support as the at first out-of-place British scientist who you never get in westerns, but are desperately needed and used in lost world pictures.  And Freda Jackson plays a Mexican gypsy with an eye-patch. 

Shalako (1968)
Brigitte Bardot, Sean Connery, Eric Sykes, Stephen Boyd, Woody Strode, Honor Blackman, Jack Hawkins - a mad cast for any movie but for a western, insane in this Euan Lloyd-produced Louis L'amour adap. See also Yul Brynner and Richard Crenna and Leonard Nimoy in Lloyd/L'Amour's Catlow, directed by Sam Wanamaker in 1970. Similar fare. 

The Man Called Noon (1973)
Stephen Boyd and Richard Crenna in the last of the Lloyd/L'Amour trilogy, desprately trying to be a violent spaghetti/paella and chips western by exploitation journeyman/Italian Job director Peter Collinson, a man who if he lived may have furthered his career into something more than being the Poundland Michael Winner. With Euro-Cult regulars Angel Del Pozo, Howard Ross, Aldo Sambrell, Ricardo Palacios, Patty Shepard and a slumming Farley Granger. 

Red Sun (1971)
It's a buddy movie with Toshiro Mifune as a samurai and Charles Bronson as a cowboy. Is that not a sell? Well, Alain Delon, Ursula Andress and Capucine...

The White Buffalo (1977)
Charles Bronson is Wild Bill Hickock, fighting a giant albino bison. Yes, J Lee Thompson directs Dino De Laurentiis' attempt to breed western and giant monster movie. With John Carradine appearing, as he's ubiquitous in both genres. 

Warner Archive Grab Bag - THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY and PERFORMANCE on Blu-ray

THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY (1964; Arthur Hiller)
I've heard it said that THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY was Julie Andrews' favorite film that she ever did. I may agree with her estimation of it. It's pretty great. I recall reading about it in Danny Peary's Guide For the Film Fanatic years ago and I had meant to see it since then. The combination of cast (James Garner & Julie Andrews among others ) and Paddy Chayefsky having written it was quite a draw. I think I was obsessed with NETWORK around the time that I first heard of it. It really feels like a romantic WWII film from the writer of NETWORK, which is great.
We've all seen our share of romantic or heavy drama scenes that take place in the rain. It's a very cinematic thing to do. We can always associate with the idea that whatever is happening is so important to the characters involved is enough to make them forget that they are getting drenched. Plus, filming characters in the rain just looks cool. Often the emotion and their wet faces carry more weight than they would otherwise. All that being said, this film has one of my favorite scenes in the rain that I've seen in a long while. It's the one that really hooked me into the movie in a big way. 

On top of having a great looking black and white transfer (I love high-definition B&W), this Blu-ray has a few extras.
First, there is a nice audio commentary from director Arthur Hiller. With a film as old as this, it is always a treat to have the director's own thoughts and recollections from the production. Hiller mentions right up front that this is his favorite film that he ever directed (& rightfully so as it is probably his best).
Also, there is a short (6 minute) vintage promotional featurette called "Action On the Beach" which covers the recreation of D-Day scene that was used in the film. It shows the various many elements needed to set up this scene.
Buy It Here:
http://bit.ly/1o88oLx




PERFORMANCE (1970; Donald Cammell/Nicolas Roeg)
As with THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, I strongly associate PERFORMANCE with Danny Peary. Though Peary only delineated  AMERICANIZATION with a simple "CM" (indicating it was a Cult Movie) in the back of Guide For the Film Fanatic, he went into much more detail about PERFORMANCE in his essay about it in the first Cult Movies book. It would seem his affection may have landed more squarely on the side of EMILY, as he went into much depth about why he disliked PERFORMANCE. He discussed how it was a film that, as well as being a bit of a mess, conjured up the sense of many distinct odors in the viewer. Though PERFORMANCE was never exhibited theatrically in any sort of Odorama-esque process, Peary felt it was vile enough to make one quite nauseous nonetheless. While I agree with Peary in some respects, I still think PERFORMANCE is a trip worth taking. To be fair, one of Peary's overriding principles (as laid out explicitly in his books) was that though he himself may dislike a film, he would still encourage people to see those films for themselves as they may find some value in the experience. Though the characters in PERFORMANCE - chiefly a gleefully violent gangster and an ex-rock star and his two live-in lovemates - are not particularly likeable at all, there is a lot more going on here. There is an examination of the intermingling of personalities that is rather intriguing and has stayed with me over time. Though PERFORMANCE is in no way as good a film as either, it is easy to insert it into a thematic conversation with masterworks like Bergman's PERSONA and Altman's 3 WOMEN. Along with that thematic thread, the style and editing of the movie also make it memorable and poetic as well. It is certainly an artifact of the late 1960s, but the fact that it was released at all, especially by a major studio is beyond an anomaly, even in a period of offbeat personal expression via more mainstream cinema outlets. PERFORMANCE must been seen by and is recommended for adventurous cinephiles looking to really challenge themselves.
This disc includes a couple supplements:
-"Influence and Controversy" (25 mins) This featurette focuses on the circumstances surrounding the making of the film as well as its reception at the time of its release and its impact since then. It includes interviews with David Cammell, the film's producer Sanford Lieberson , star Anita Pallenberg, editor Antony Gibbs, and others (including other crew members). It's a nice retrospective "making of" type of piece and as you'd expect from a film like this, there are lots of interesting stories behind it and about it.
-"Memo From Turner" (5 mins) 
This vintage featurette is all about Mick Jagger and covers his composing of the film's score and his acting in the movie. 
It features some nice behind the scenes footage from the set and was clearly meant to sell Jagger as one of the driving forces behind the film and what the studio saw as their way to sell the film to audiences at the time. 
Buy It Here:
http://bit.ly/1j4ALCl

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Second Sight - GREGORY'S GIRL on Blu-ray

GREGORY'S GIRL (1981; Bill Forsyth)
I came to director Bill Forsyth via my fascination with John Sayles when I was in college. In addition to wanting to see every film that Sayles had directed at that point, I also started tracking down all the films he had written as well. This led me to things like ALLIGATOR, PIRANHA, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS and THE CHALLENGE. It also turned me into a lovely little character drama that Sayles scribed called BREAKING IN, which Forsyth directed. I was already a fan of both Burt Reynolds and Casey Siemaszko (of THREE O'CLOCK HIGH fame) so it was a no-brainer and I loved it. The name Bill Forsyth was familiar to me and I recalled that he had also directed LOCAL HERO which was a favorite of one of my coworkers at the video store I was working at. I had to see that film next and eventually worked my way around to GREGORY'S GIRL and COMFORT AND JOY. I liked both quite a bit and would later discover that Tarantino was also a Forsyth fan insofar as he would call out COMFORT AND JOY on a list of favorites in a book I read about him. In rewatching GREGORY'S GIRL, I really noticed how Forsyth would seem to be a filmmaker that most probably was also an influence on Wes Anderson. There's a certain sense of humor and a balancing of tone which has a kind of underlying melancholy to, very much in line with Anderson's films. Also, the film is primarily from the the point of view of the young people in the film so it makes it quite reminiscent of something like RUSHMORE or MOONRISE KINGDOM perhaps. Forsyth absolutely specializes in making these wonderful, observant, character-based comedies. They are populated with interesting, quirky people that are almost all endearing in one way or another. He really takes his time and lets his characters talk to each other. It's no surprise really that he and Sayles eventually hooked up and made a film together. They are quite similar. While Sayles leans a bit more dramatic with his material, Forsyth veers more down the light comedy fork. It's disarmly pleasant stuff. Feels like there might be some Truffaut influence in there too.

Special Features:
This disc has some excellent supplements which is quite refreshing as few of his movies have had much in the way of extras. These include:
-An Audio commentary track with Director Bill Forsyth and film critic Mark Kermode. This is a great commentary for a number of reasons. First, it's just great to hear Forsyth talk about this movie at all. I like his work quite a bit so it's neat to hear him break down his process a bit. Second, I like Mark Kermode, so it's great to hear him here too. Lastly, Kermode is obviously a big fan of GREGORY'S GIRL so he's coming at the movie from a very good place. He has lots of great specific questions about the origins of the production, where the story came from, how Forsyth came to cast the movie and what his working relationship with the actors was like.
- "Bill Forsyth: The Early Years" a new 20-minute interview with director Forsyth wherein he talks about how he came to be a filmmaker and the things that influenced that decision.
- "GREGORY'S GIRL Memories" - an 11-minute interview with actress Clare Grogan. She discusses first meeting Bill Forsyth and the process of being cast in GREGORY'S GIRL, meeting the other actors and actually making the film as well as promoting it.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Masters of Cinema - ACE IN THE HOLE and VIOLENT SATURDAY on Blu-ray

ACE IN THE HOLE (1951; Billy Wilder)
"Bad news sells best. Cause good news is no news."
There are few films that were made 50 years ago that are just as relevant today as they were at the time of their release. Some movies just touch on some things that end up being remarkably prophetic, in this case in terms of the media and journalism and what is news. Two other films that dig into this territory and also the idea of celebrity and what makes it are NETWORK and THE KING OF COMEDY. All three of these films would take a cynical look at the media and end up predicting the future. All three offer up something quite outrageous for the time they were made, but now said outrageousness is more or less an everyday reality for us in the current age of media and the 24 hour need cycle we live in. To think that some psychopath who had kidnapped a talk show host just to get himself on TV for a few minutes would ever become a real celebrity must have seemed quite ridiculous in 1983 when THE KING OF COMEDY was released. And though Billy Wilder might have believed a reporter would do anything (including deliberately stretching out a story) it must have seemed quite shocking to folks seeing the film in 1951. He was more or less predicting things that would commonly occupy news channels to this day and the literal "media circus" as we often see on a regular basis now. ACE IN THE HOLE is probably the most somber of those three films I mentioned. That may have something to do with it flopping pretty hard upon its initial release. 
Kirk Douglas turns in one of his career high performances here as Charles Tatum - a cynical, fast-talking career newspaper man. After being fired off of 11 newspapers he finds himself taking up residence at a small town paper in New Mexico. From the very first he declares his abilities to cover big news and little news and to "go out and bite a dog" if there's no news to be had. Tatum does find a proverbial dog to bite in the form of a man trapped by a cave-in in the "Mountain of the Seven Vultures". When he does everything he can to delay the man's rescue and sensationalize the event to the hilt with his articles about it, he proves himself to be one of the most despicable human beings on earth. Few actors other than Douglas in his prime could make a character like this even remotely likeable through sheer force of charm and charisma (which Douglas had in spades). 
ACE is an interesting way point in Wilder's career in that it was the first film he made after parting ways with longtime collaborator and co-writer Charles Brackett. Wilder and Brackett had collaborated on some great movies like BALL OF FIRE, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO, A FOREIGN AFFAIR, THE LOST WEEKEND and of course, SUNSET BLVD. They were even a formidable duo as writers on films that Wilder didn't direct - MIDNIGHT (directed by Mitchell Leisen) and BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE (directed by Ernst Lubitsch) being chief among my favorites. So as Wilder was stepping away from that collaboration with ACE IN THE HOLE, he also took on the duties of being his own producer for the first time as well. Those two choices alone could have been major missteps by any other writer/director, but Wilder pulled together a remarkably dark and searing portrait nonetheless. The fact that the film failed and wasn't received particularly well on a critical level at the time would seem to demonstrate that it was ahead of it's time for sure.

Supplements:
-"Portrait of a "60% Perfect Man": Billy Wilder" (59 mins)
This vintage career retrospective documentary from 1982 gives a nice overview of Wilder's filmography, carrying right up to the last movies he made. Includes interviews with Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Wilder himself (who paces energetically about his office as he speaks). As you can imagine, Wilder is a dynamic speaker and storyteller and it's a wonderful thing to spend an hour with him. He gives a lot of insights about both writing and directing throughout.
"Neil Sinyard on Billy Wilder" (33 mins) 
Sinyard (coauthor of 'Journey Down Sunset Blvd: The Films of Billy Wilder) gives a historical context to Wilder and his career just prior to and through ACE IN THE HOLE. He discusses Wilder's working relationship with co-writers Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond and also the new circumstances facing Wilder as he began the production of ACE IN THE HOLE.

VIOLENT SATURDAY (1955; Richard Fleischer)
Richard Fleischer is one of those directors where, if you start digging through his filmography, there are many gems to be discovered. I can't recall which was the first Fleischer film I ever saw (that honor may go to SOYLENT GREEN or 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA), but he immediately impressed me. Something about the kind of films he ended up making and the way he composed his frames grabbed my attention. I think that COMPULSION was another one I saw that caught my attention in a similar way. 
In VIOLENT SATURDAY, Fleischer made a very character oriented heist film. Some might find it dull perhaps as the film really takes its time getting to the action, but I think it's pretty interesting. Feels a bit like it's one part heist film and one part Sirk-ian melodrama which is an interesting combination for sure. The focus is a bit more on Victor Mature and his relationship with his son (same kid as in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER). It's a nice early role for Lee Marvin, wherein he is introduced early as a sadist who enjoys stepping on a little boy's hand. But Marvin's presence alone always elevates a film for me and this is no exception. Also in a smaller supporting role is Ernest Borgnine as an Amish farmer ( pre-dating DEADLY BLESSING by about 30 years). As little as Marvin and Borgnine are in the film, they have a nice little square off at the end at least. Overall though, VIOLENT SATURDAY is an enjoyable, slow-burn, heist thriller that slots well into Fleischer's canon of movies along with things like MR. MAJESTYK and THE NEW CENTURIONS. 

Supplements:
-"Richard Fleischer, Storyteller(21 mins) 
A  neat little conversation with director William Friedkin who talks about how impressed he was with VIOLENT SATURDAY from a young age, from its narrative structure to the use of CinemaScope. He goes on to call it one of the best "heist" pictures along with Stanley Kubrick's film THE KILLING and to discuss how Richard Fleischer is one of the best storytellers in American cinema. 
-"Melodrame Policier" (28 mins)
This in-depth exploration of VIOLENT SATURDAY by French writer/director Nicolas Saada is quite fascinating. Another excellent extra feature.

The disc also includes some lovely liner notes by Adam Batty, a film programmer and editor of the site Hope Lies At 24 Frames Per Second). It's a great, insightful essay and the booklet also has lots of pictures of vintage advertisements and artwork from the film.


Friday, April 25, 2014

Scream Factory - FINAL EXAM on Blu-ray

Like so many folks around my age, I very fondly remember the slasher cycle of the early 1980s. With the enormous popularity of HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH came an unprecedented amount of imitators. It's really remarkable just how many slasher films got made from even 1980 to 1983. It's a tried and true scenario that when a film is hugely successful that both Hollywood and independent filmmakers will try to capitalize and jump on the band wagon. It was certainly the case with JAWS and STAR WARS in the 1970s, as they both had their share of copycats. But there was just something so simple (and inexpensive) about the slasher formula that it drew in more people outside of Hollywood looking to get in on the action. It was like the California Gold Rush or something. Rarely before (and basically never again) had so many of a certain kind of film be produced in such large numbers over a relatively short period of time. Of course, if you start to think about it mathematically, it becomes clear that many of these films would not end up being successful. There were just too many of them. We're talking about enough films to comprise their own sub-genre. In 1981 alone something like 30 slasher films were made. FINAL EXAM was released among this tidal wave amidst a group including FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, HALLOWEEN II, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, THE BURNING, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME and JUST BEFORE DAWN. That's one hell of a crowd to get lost in. And FINAL EXAM did seem to slip under the radar a bit at the time. In comparison to the more expensive films in the genre, whose budgets ran anywhere from $500,000 to $5 million, FINAL EXAM was made on a tiny budget of about $60,000. Thankfully, the film would later find a fan base on VHS. VHS was certainly the great equalizer as far as slasher films went and the massive number of movies made would stock the shelves of mom & pop video store horror sections for years afterwards. Over the past decade or two though, it's been interesting to see FINAL EXAM emerge as something of a cult favorite. This is most likely due to he way it is a bit different than some other entries in the genre. It's more of a slow burn, almost a campus comedy for the first half of its running time, before things start to get bloody. Also, one cannot discount the power of 'Radish'. Joel S. Rice plays Radish and he is quite amazing in the role. Radish is the nerd character of the movie and he is one of my favorite nerds in all of slasher cinema. The nerd is certainly an archetype that was used quite often in slashers and they were met with often brutal ends. It's hard to describe Rice's performance as it is quite memorable and needs to be seen. It would seem to be a combination of somewhat silly dialogue, acting style (or perhaps inexperience combined with poor direction) and Rice's own specific manner of speaking that come together to create a magical and memorable character. I'd be highly surprised if people viewing FINAL EXAM for the first time aren't thoroughly entertained by Radish. 

The transfer on this Scream Factory Blu-ray looks quite nice. Though this film has had a couple dvd releases, I've of course never seen the colors pop like this. Apparently the transfer is taken from the original camera negative and it shows. Also included here are special features ported over from the initial dvd release of the film in 2008. Included here is a fun little commentary track with cast members Joel S. Rice, Cecile Bagdadi and Sherry Willis-Burch. This track s moderated by FINAL EXAM super fan (and filmmaker) Julia Marchese, whose love for the film knows no bounds. It's a very enjoyable track with lots of humorous recollections from the cast about the film's production and how they all came to be involved with it.