Rupert Pupkin Speaks: December 2014 ""

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Jack Criddle

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Jack Criddle is a filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY and North Adams, MA. His credits include work as a production coordinator on Brendan Canty and Christoph Green’s Wilco Solid Sound Festival film, and as a camera operator on William Paul Smith’s A PORTRAIT OF IZHAR PATKIN. The subjects of his own short documentaries range from Vermont-based stained glass artist Debora Coombs to z-grade 1930’s proto-grindhouse director Dwain Esper. At the rare time’s he finds a free moment, he likes to watch movies.

THE HASHER’S DELIRIUM (1910)
This summer I made the acquaintance of Tommy Jose Stathes, a film historian, collector, archivist and exhibitor who specializes in the regrettably under-researched field of early animation. Stathes has collected 16mm cartoon shorts since childhood, and holds regular screenings of them in the NYC area. He went on TCM to talk about the Bray Studio, will be featured in the forthcoming documentary CARTOON CARNIVAL, and just released “Cartoon Roots," which I hope is just the first of many blu-ray anthologies of public domain cartoons from his collection. THE HASHER’S DELIRIUM, by French animation pioneer Emile Cohle, was a surreal short I saw at one of Tommy’s screenings, depicting a drunkard’s visions of bats, snakes, and googly-eyed hobgoblins. It’s pretty weird and wonderful, and prefigures DUMBO’s “Pink Elephants” sequence by 30 years.

GASLIGHT (1944)
I’d heard this period thriller described as Hitchcockian - and indeed, my girlfriend Jess, who sat me down to watch it, couldn’t recall if Hitchcock himself had directed it. But the truth is, George Cukor, the master of screwball comedies and "women’s pictures,” had a greater sensitivity to three-dimensional human characters than the Master of Suspense, making this a psychological thriller of a more close-to-home, personal nature. Highly recommended for fans of GONE GIRL; this is perhaps the most perfect film ever made about a toxic marriage.

THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947)
Rex Harrison, I’m told, is something of a sex symbol for women in their 20’s and 30’s, who grew up with a VCR in the house, and fell in love with him in MY FAIR LADY and DR. DOLITTLE when they were young. He’s no less charming and arrogantly lovable as Captain Gregg, the salty sea captain’s ghost who forms a bond with Gene Tierney’s widow. The film is funny, lyrical, romantic and intensely bittersweet, and is the type of picture everyone thinks of when they say “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore."

THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)
I haven’t really got an excuse as to why it took me so long to see this well-regarded classic noir, but I’m definitely glad I did. The one thing that did strike me about this film is its total lack of cliches. Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy’s characters never display any macho heroics; rather, they let themselves be psychologically tortured and broken by William Talman’s gun-wielding murderer for most of the film’s duraton It’s a fascinating and authentic study of the complexities of male psychology masquerading as a genre programmer.

THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (1969)
Speaking of psychologically rich b-movies, there’s this this gem, which Francois Truffaut allegedly called his favorite American film. Ostensibly a ripped-from-the-headlines dramatization of “Lonely Hearts Killers” Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez’ murder-and-robbery spree, it’s really a tragic story about the insecurity of a woman who doesn’t feel she’s attractive or good enough for her partner. The heavy-set Shirley Stoler is impossible to take your eyes off as she alternates between jealous rage and wounded despair, and the film’s low budget and shabby production value only enhance its feeling of dread.

WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971)
Though I missed out on this film when it made its revival-house rounds some time back, I finally caught up with it this year. It’s pretty brutal stuff, and I wouldn’t recommend it to animal lovers, as there’s a real kangaroo hunt in the film that is pretty upsetting. It’s still an amazing film and a damning critique of Australian macho culture that prefigures the similar DELIVERANCE and STRAW DOGS. A small-town Australian schoolteacher, trying to get to Sydney to reunite with his girlfriend, instead finds himself journeying further into the Outback, which director Ted Kotcheff depicts as a purgatory for the living.

HIGH ANXIETY (1977)
After listening to Mel Brooks’ wonderful long-form interview on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast (which is itself one of my favorite discoveries of the year - New Media Category) I decided to check out a few of his movies I hadn’t got around to yet. His riff on the “one-man-genre” of Alfred Hitchcock, which had somehow eluded me thus far, is a hoot. Brooks, who workshopped the script with Hitchcock, plays the recently-hired new director of the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous, who uncovers a dastardly plot and finds himself in a “wrong man” scenario. Keep an eye out for young co-writer Barry Levinson as a hotel bellhop who provides the movie’s funniest scene.

MODERN ROMANCE (1981)
It seems to me that early Albert Brooks movies are something of a Rosetta Stone of comedy, and are contained in the creative DNA of the cringey, awkward humor of "Curb Your Enthusiasm,” "The Larry Sanders Show," "Alan Partride" and others. Playing a self-centered, needy and jealous movie editor who dumps and subsequently tries to win back his girlfriend, Brooks blurs the line between depicting a character you could laugh at and one you want to sock in the head. The film also contains the funniest scene depicting film editing ever. (Come to think of it, outside of the that new one by those Astron 6 guys, it might be the only scene of film editing.) Brooks’ character tries in vain to make sense of a z-grade sci-fi b-flick by removing repetitive dialogue, only to be hounded by the picture’s director that he wants it put back in. The results are hysterical.

THE TALL GUY (1989)
Jeff Goldblum is the straight man in a slapstick revue by Rowan Atkinson’s unfunny and deeply unpleasant superstar comedian, who feels creatively unfulfilled until he strikes up a romance with Emma Thompson’s hospital nurse, and gets cast in the lead of a musical reworking of David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN. This first directorial outing by British stand-up Mel Smith is a wonderful time capsule of people struggling on the lower rungs of the ladder in London’s West End theater scene circa the late 80’s. While far from perfect, it has a wacky, try-anything energy, with scenes that include cartoonishly over-the-top lovemaking and an out-of-nowhere sing-along sequence. 

SHAKES THE CLOWN (1991)
Bobcat Goldthwait’s complete oddity of a first feature stars the comedian as an alcoholic birthday party clown in a universe where clannish and rivalrous clowns go about their daily lives (much of which consists of drinking and trash-talking each other) in full costume and makeup. It’s a weird and wonderful little movie, with clown factions filling in for dysfunctional, back-stabbing cliques of stand-up comics as Goldthwait knew them. Though reviled upon its release, the movie has minor cult reputation, though with today’s popularity of meta-comedy and the interest in the inside-baseball workings of show business, it’s ripe for rediscovery.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Justin Bozung

Justin Bozung is a film writer, researcher and part-time archivist.   He has written for such print publications as Fangoria, Whoa, Bijou, Phantom Of The Movies' Videoscope and Shock Cinema.  He is co-author of the upcoming Studies In The Horror Film: Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (Centipede Press; March 2015), and is currently working with the estate of Pulitzer Prize winning writer Norman Mailer on a volume dedicated to his avant-garde films of the '60s as well as the official biography of filmmaker Frank Perry.   Please visit his official website:  JustinBozung.net

Not holding myself to any sort of rules here, 2014 was a wonderful year for film.  The sure bevy of new films that hit theaters and VOD this year, for me, made 2014 the best year for film that I can remember.   We saw new films released by Alejandro Jodorowosky, Matthew Barney, Luc Besson, David Cronenberg, Abel Ferrera, Gregg Araki, Pedro Almodovar...the list goes on and on.   

With that said and those seen, I was so damn busy this year on various book/magazine projects that I really wasn't able to get through more than just a handful of older stuff; films that Brian Saur would equate as those belonging, but only slightly, to his moniker of  "Film Discoveries".    

01.  DON'T LET GO (2002)
Unreleased to date, I managed to receive a screener from filmmaker Max Myers in support of an interview I was doing with Shock Cinema magazine with actor Scott Wilson.   Wilson, here, plays "Jimmy Ray Stevens",  a former rockabilly superstar who after the death of his brother drifts out of the music business and into heavy drink--blaming himself for decades for the incident.   For sure, Scott Wilson's finest performance to date, shame that the film hasn't seen a release.   The film has a low-budget vibe, but damn, if you want to see some serious acting chops--then you need to contact Max Myers for a copy.

02.  DERAILROADED (2005)
Yes, a full length documentary about the misunderstood Wild Man Fischer.  If you're not familiar with Fischer, then it's likely that you're not a fan of Frank Zappa and you probably won't ever be a fan of Fischer's music either, yet, this portrait of Fischer--who, in the '60s was discovered by Zappa singing for pennies on the streets of Los Angeles covers his life--from his empathic upbringing to his time with Zappa, his falling out with the great guitar player--to his final days living in utter squaler on and off the streets.    Fischer was borderline insane, schziophrenic, bi-polar, nutzoid--but a genius?    You can decide.   Fischer makes someone like Wesley Willis look like Brian Wilson.   Heartbreaking stuff.  

03.  PICASSO AND BRAQUE GO TO THE MOVIES (2008)
Produced by Martin Scorsese, P&B GO TO THE MOVIES should be required viewing.     In 60 minutes, you'll explore the relationship between Cubist painters Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, but also learn and confer that the early cinema was such that it had a major influence on the paintings of the duo...It's only recently, in the aftermath of the release of this film that Picasso scholars have begun to do significant research into the discovery of filmic shapes and symbols and how they appear in the painters work. An example: a film camera body appears in the shape of a torso in a women in various Picasso works post 1906....But also how the work of the Cubists, in turn, influenced cinema too. 

04.  DOWN ON US aka BEYOND THE DOORS (1989)
For everyone who has ever laughed at a film like ZONTAR, THE THING FROM VENUS...Larry Buchanan was a misunderstood auteur.   What a filmmaker!   I believe, it was in 2013, here on Brian's blog that I wrote of my obsessive love and admiration for Larry Buchanan's 1989 redo of his 1976 Marilyn Monroe film, GOODBYE NORMA JEAN as GOODNIGHT, SWEET MARILYN--and his follow-up DOWN ON US is yet another utter masterpiece of pop culture/celebrity conspiracy and mythos.   Whereas in his Marilyn films--Buchanan explores the possible conspiracies surrounding the death of Marilyn Monroe--here he does the same but looks at the lives of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison.    This is a brilliant film.   It's gonna be tough for many out there who might be reading this to transcend and break through their subjective natures and belief systems regarding their definitions of what cinema is "supposed" to be, but if you allow this one to take hold--you'll discover an entire new world of cinema.   Buchanan, with his "anything goes" ideaology throws reality out of the window, and puts these rock icons into a mythical world where he has free reign over them to do anything he wishes.  He writes songs for them in which they were in reality never connected to.  He transcends music genres and era for them to work in.  He takes pride in shifting away from any notion of reality or realism.  This is a special world that you're asked to exist in, and boy, is it something wonderful. 

05.  COMPROMISING POSITIONS (1985)
The second to last film by the great, yet still, underrated auteur Frank Perry. COMPROMISING POSITIONS is a light-hearted revisionist film noir set on Long Island. It features actress Susan Sarandon steeped in a Desperate Housewives-y like existential investigation as she plays a gumshoe on the hunt for the murderer of a sleazy and greasy dentist (Joe Montegna).   Frank's work; his eariler films with ex-wife Eleanor Perry are regarded as his best, but as someone who has gotten to know Frank's work intimately over the last year as his official biographer, I can say that his post Eleanor films: PLAY IT AS IT LAYS, MAN ON A SWING, MOMMIE DEAREST, and 'DOC' etc., are really in need of a second look.   COMPROMISING POSITIONS really plays outside-the-box. It's funny, very quirky, has some seriously brilliant film noir cinematography by the great Barry Sonnenfield (his first film), and a score by Brad Fiedel.     From a novel by Susan Isaacs, this is a subdued and very subtle masterpiece.  Don't allow it's slapsticky elements to confuse.   Watch it a few times, because, while it is really quirky in places, there is a serious filmmaker at work here.    It grows on you.

06.  THE OREGONIAN (2011)
Writer/Director Calvin Lee Reeder just might be my favorite new filmmaker.  He's like the second-coming of Jean Cocteau.    While Cocteau's films aren't for all, especially those who think that a film isn't a film without a direct narrative--Reeder's THE OREGONIAN and his most recent effort THE RAMBLER (2013) are both epic Cocteauian forays into nightmares, purgatory, the psyche, existentialism and dream.  


07.  A YEAR IN THE QUIET SUN (1984)
Directed by Polish filmmaker Krzystof Zanussi, QUIET SUN is an incredible and tender work that too like the above mentioned DON'T LET GO, features Scott Wilson.    Wilson is ultra subdued and patient here as a American solider who falls in love with a Polish widow, played with wonder by Maja Komorowska.   The two fall in love, but there, of course, is a great language barrier to overcome.  Zanussi does something ingenius and that he refused to include subtitles in QUIET SUN.  This allows for us, the audience, to fall in love with Komorowska just as Wilson's character "Norman" does.    Wilson even sings in the film.    The colors in the film evoke a deep melancholy, and the ending of QUIET SUN will leave you in tears and also a profound state of dreamy bliss with it's use of Monument Valley.     Zanussi and Wilson went on to make another film afterward, 1997's OUR GOD'S BROTHER--but it's impossible to find.  I'll search for it forever probably. 

08.  COME EARLY MORNING (2006)
Joey Lauren Adams, yes, from DAZED AND CONFUSED and a handful of Kevin Smith's films, wrote and directed this wonderful little indie film with a big cast.    Starring Ashley Judd, as a drunk who can't settle down--COME EARLY MORNING is great with it's novelistic turns and characters.    
09. WHITE LIGHTNIN' (2009)
Ultra-dark Sundance favorite on the year of it's premiere about Jesco White, an Appalachian Mountain dancer who is smack in the middle of an existential battle within the self but also festering with the good of God and the evils of The Devil.   Shot in a rich black and white, WHITE LIGHTNIN' is fuckin' cool.   It's weird, dreamy, structured as if it were a film noir ala OUT OF THE PAST (1947).   The main reason to check out WHITE LIGHTNIN' is because of the performance of Carrie Fisher.  Yes, Princess Leia, who mostly--following THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980)and three STAR WARS films, and her writing of POSTCARDS ON THE EDGE (1990) has more or less be pigeon-holed into smaller character/supporting roles over the last 30 years--remember her in DROP DEAD FRED (1991)?   Her work in WHITE LIGHTNIN' is fuggin' incredible.  Fisher is a white-trash, mountain-dwelling-fuck-machine manipulator.   Worth the price of admission alone. 

10. MADAME WANG'S (1981)
I'm a sucker for anything Paul Morrissey.     Love him or hate him or his films, most only know him for FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN or BLOOD FOR DRACULA, and while those films are staggering and ingenius works (often lauded as cult classics)--it's his post Warhol, post '60s --'80s gutter family trilogy that affords me the comfort of suggesting that the man is a genius.    Morrissey is one of the strangest filmmakers to ever pick up a camera, deeming himself a ultra-conversative; a gentleman who floats in flames on the Right--Morrissey finds black death humor in the depressed, sleazy, drug-abused and derelict nastiness of the junkie huddles of the pre-cleaned Ed Koch New York City.   My favorite films of his MIXED BLOOD (1984), FORTY-DEUCE (1982), HEAT (1972), and now MADAME WANGS--the film I had put off seeing until this year--are all about dysfunctional family units, those made naturally or self-constructed.  Yet, all of his films offer a deep-rooted morality at their center as well.  These five films--post Warhol era--are all  black in humor, almost plot-less, novelistic, and fugg...all masterpieces.   

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 www.007hertzrumble.com. 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 atcinemashame.wordpress.com)No 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?
Me: 
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 rupertpupkinspeaks.com. 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.