Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Davey Collins ""

Friday, January 23, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Davey Collins

Davey Collins had the same misspent childhood that many of you did: Watching strange movies via late-night/Saturday afternoon television programming or VHS. As he crawled into and back out of adolescence, he realized movies were the most important thing in his life and had taught him most of what he knew. He ditched class and went to the library to read books about film noir and westerns. He discovered some of his favorite filmmakers weren’t always the ones widely appreciated (“Where’s the Reginald Le Borg chapter?”). His first appreciation of literature came about by tracking down and reading the source material for his favorite films. He currently works in the hospitality racket and catches himself shining his ass from time to time by making allusions to old movies while mired in meetings. Lately, he’s been getting together material for a print film zine entitled “Strange Illusions” which focuses primarily on budget-starved cinema of the 1930’s-1970’s. He’s on Twitter @Davey_Wade.

See his Underrated Thrillers list as well for more cool recommendations:
Report to the Commissioner (1975)
American crime films of the 1970’s are as distinct as any movement, trend, “wave,” or other form of categorizing that we may cough up in regards to cinema. Noted for mining the grit of on-the-streets realism, they are in fact stylized and controlled works and, in the best sense of the phrase, products of their time. These post-code descendants of film noir often bleed onto and into one another; it’s why we seek them out and mention them in the same breath. Why they seem so special today is that despite a few superficial similarities such as muted color photography and chase sequences (the latter presented here in most unconventional and roaring fashion), the themes explored, and routes taken to do such, vary in unexpected, thought-provoking, and satisfying ways.

Report to the Commissioner might be my favorite first-time viewing of the year. It has its share of flaws (some weak voice-over work here and there, an inefficient climatic set-piece that fails to build the tension it strives for), but the performers and filmmakers give everything they have to characters minor or otherwise. The (admittedly cynical) theme questions if idealists can even exist, let alone affect change, in a cruel social construct. Michael Moriarty (brilliant as newly assigned “enlightened” detective Beauregard Lockley), nearly incapacitated, manages a line that many of us might have wondered ourselves “What am I doing here anyway…walking around…on this planet.” Cosmic defeat. I’ve been slightly shaken since the viewing.

Yaphet Kotto won’t be neglected by me or anyone! He’s the best kind of movie actor: Convincing and entertaining, he commands almost every scene he’s in (matched only at times by Moriarty…what a duo!). Your eyes aren’t likely to leave him so long as he’s in frame and you’ll wait for him to step back in when he’s out. You’ll see a lot of familiar faces including that of young Richard Gere in a pretty nice turn as an exploitative shit-bag street pimp.

Till the End of Time (1946)
I’m not sure which cinema documentary it was, but Edward Dmytryk was on topic and some clips of this film were on display. One that seared into memory was a young Robert Mitchum in a bent-brim cowboy hat spitting in a racist’s face on behalf of a friend who didn’t make it out of Guadalcanal alive. That tingled my teenage spine. Premiere Video had Til the End of Time on VHS, but I was a noir junkie and it wasn’t being mentioned in the noir books I was reading. So fast-forward to this year when Warner Archive released it to DVD, prompting me to catch on.

The Best Years of Our Lives as through the eyes of Dore Schary and Edward Dmytryk (released before the Wyler classic, by the way). Or through the eyes of novelist Niven Busch whose source novel “They Dream of Home” was, interestingly, published prior to V-E Day. The film wisely keeps the dramatic temperature even-keeled and features very little over-simplification. Some of the narrative threads just go loose as per the intent of the filmmakers (a device not common in forties studio pictures). To wit, very little is tidied up neatly, and when the film concludes after a symbolic game-room brawl, many doubts still loiter the futures of the characters.

I have wondered before if Dmytryk’s themes and style would have progressed differently had his ethos not been tried by both sides of a certain notorious fence. I’d like to see his subsequent So Well Remembered (also available from Warner Archive) to track him at least another step after Crossfire.

Robert Mitchum in support is beautiful in all capacities. All of these young Mitchum roles, do we appreciate them enough? Is that even possible? And, by the way, Robert-Mitchum-with-a-headache is a sub-genre whose quarries I could mine until my arms came off.

The Master (1980)
“I despise your killings…and rapings. You’re….despicable.”

Here’s one that would have made my discoveries list in 1999 had the bootleg I checked out from Forbidden Books and Video (anyone remember those Shaw VHS bootlegs with the hack-job cut-and-paste titling?) hadn’t kept dropping out to a particularly stale episode of Who’s the Boss (oh beloved Forbidden B&V…so long as I live, you are with me). I gave up before the halfway mark and was robbed of its intricate choreography (cut from the same majesty as a number of breathtaking dance sequences from classic musicals), more interesting than usual camera placement/movement (I was going to say “blocking” as well but its context could be ambiguous considering the genre), and a playful tendency with its own kung-fu story conventions. Most regrettable though, I could have spent the last fifteen years trying to emulate another charismatic performance from my ideal: Chen Kuan-tai (never better in terms of physical grace). Unfortunately, the broad comedy which plagues large swaths of runtime inspires a measure of groaning. Occasionally a (dubbed) line will hit the mark; the room erupts. However, a stirring climatic conflict does more than redeem it of any demerits earned.

The Good Fairy (1935)
Our world never recovered from the premature loss of Preston Sturges’ unmatched run as American cinema’s most important wit (could one of FDR’s three-letter acronyms not have stepped in to grant him immunity from Paramount’s wrong-headedness?). No savior-successor was to appear and stir us as brilliantly into laughing at our own corruptions and misconceptions. Gladly, though, I would shake the hands of those who’ve dared an attempt to fill the void: I salute you for getting however close to second-place you managed.

The Good Fairy is a William Wyler helmed film with Preston Sturges adapting a Broadway translation of a Hungarian play. While I realize that Wyler is a nearly perfect filmmaker, I’m going to reverse the official scorer’s decision here when awarding the majority share of credit. Elements of the script are injected with that unmistakable wit, to the point where I’ve filed it within that prominent Sturges cabinet kept near the front of my right brain (Sturges was on set every day according to his memoirs). When I wasn’t laughing outright at the proceedings, I was at least portraying a grin. Margaret Sullivan (so charming), Herbert Marshall, and Frank Morgan are all in top form. But as in Sturges’ directorial efforts to come, it’s often the smaller character roles that steal the audience (to my estimation, a mark of the dedicated writer). Don’t step away during the film-within-a-film sequence, a classic bit worthy of regular pop culture reference.
Apparently his script was used for a Deanna Durbin remake in the forties entitled I’ll Be Yours.

Ghost of the Hunchback aka House of Terrors (1965)
Addicts of classic horror know of a certain real-life fear: That of having reached the end of discovery. What if that deep dark well, once so fertile, has run dry? Fear not, because there are Japanese horrors you’ve likely not seen unless you are one of a privileged few. Every year or so a few will trickle out, and we’ll be waiting at the docks by midnight. For instance, last year saw a group of Shintoho films (horror represented among them) on tour throughout some of the finer movie-houses in these United States (and hopefully elsewhere). Ghost of the Hunchback comes from Toei Studios and is credited to Hajime Sato who dazzled us with Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell. The best copy in circulation comes, fittingly, from an Italian print.

Those who’ve seen readily available classics such as Kwaidan or Kuroneko can attest that the Japanese have a tradition of horror distinctly their own. So it’s rather compelling when you run into a Japanese gothic horror of the Hammer variety (Lake of Dracula) or, as in this case, of an Italian influence. If you can imagine Castle of Blood as filtered through a funnel of delirium with the creep factor lifted to spider web infested levels of loft, you’re getting at the idea. Subtlety is fine, but save it for some other movie. This was a Halloween night viewing for me, really holding my mood firmly in that spirit. Here’s to many more experiences like this one!

China Girl (1987)
For now, I’m perfectly fine never seeing Evil Dead 2 again as I’ll never duplicate that Bradbury-esque awe of riding bikes to the video store with my cronies on overcast fall days so that we may check it out against our parents’ collateral. Plus, like that cereal you ate on loop every morning, we wore it out. But if you were watching that same VHS edition that was so common, then you saw the China Girl trailer each time. The atmospheric, synth-noir trailer (preceded by the Vestron Video logo) made obvious its Romeo & Juliet love-story angle and yet still appealed to my adolescent self. Heavy on the EXT. WET ALLEY – NIGHT. Dim and urban to my sunlit and cul-de-sac.

Long since passed, the entire age-bracket where I’d have been in the demographic for this picture came and regrettably went. So as the fireworks rained embers from a cold New Year’s sky, I allowed myself a brief moment of nostalgic reflection that could have been and made it the first movie I watched in 2014. What we have is Abel Ferrara and longtime collaborator Nicholas St. John authoring a teen picture. Having never heard Ferrara’s ruminations on China Girl, it fits in quite well with his aesthetic while able to eschew some of the explicit content he’s well-known for (though a dosing of violence is to be had). Today, this film would likely be realized as a hyper-stylized, almost entirely computer generated concoction without pause for any reflection. Not that I’m calling Ferrara restrained by any means, but he wrings from just his guts and good instinct for atmosphere and performance a stylized yet recognizable working world. An enthused cast brings a boiling fervor to the imminent extended street clashes. See David Caruso as a background player amplify the picture with his speed-deluged, violent, racist no-goodnik. His blazing red thatch consumes the frame as he spews bad advice and condones any and all violence he can imagine against the rival Chinese gang. You know how it ends, of course.

The Nuisance (1933)
The last couple of years have seen a renaissance in the appreciation of Lee Tracy (responsibility falling largely onto the shoulders of the Warner Archive and the subsequent coverage of their releasing efforts). Prompted by the praise bestowed on him in some older film criticism, I was more than happy to climb onto the bandwagon. The Nuisance gives him his most suitable platform to demonstrate his talents (edging out the also highly-recommended Beloved Event, I’d say). Shady, ambulance-chasing lawyers are hardly the typical movie protagonists, but we’re on Lee Tracy’s side all the way as he proves to be the quintessence of the First National Pictures crook-hero…but for MGM! We cheer his fraudulence because in the morally-devoid city setting, he has beaten the bastards at their own game (while remaining true to his friends - among which a lovable Frank Morgan creation). The best and most refreshing element to the picture: He doesn’t learn a goddamn thing! That the audience is ecstatic at this conclusion (high-fives all around) is testament to the assuasive result Lee Tracy and director Jack Conway ultimately reign in from the romping comedic chaos. Finally, The Nuisance features what I estimate to be one of the all-time great comedy characters: “Floppy” Phil Montague as portrayed by Charles Butterworth. My prediction is that if the word spreads, his effigy shall adorn the walls of college dorm rooms from Fullerton to Plymouth State. I work with fellow named Phil and I’ve taken to adding the “Floppy” epithet when addressing him. He’s not impressed.

This was the most fun I had with a movie all year.

Last of the Fast Guns (1958)/Gunman’s Walk (1958)/Quantez (1957)Closing out with three high-order late-fifties westerns which were all recommended via the “Underrated Westerns” series hosted by Rupert Pupkin Speaks. That had to be my favorite series all year with each entry uncovering a western I’d never considered, or stirring up some new insight regarding a familiar western. I trust we’ve all been keeping a running “to see” table as all of the ‘Underrated’ and ‘Discoveries’ lists have unfolded. To everyone who feels the lawless urge to discuss neglected or personally important films, I now praise you.

Last of the Fast Guns is an ambitious, sprawling, and, without a trace of self-importance, as accomplished as any western that I can reference. So beautifully composed, how could it be anything other than the work of a master? In 2015, it will be a priority of mine to self-educate in George Sherman (Reprisal! chiefly among the curriculum) as I’ve only had enough good fortune to see a small portion of his output (all of which I’ve liked, especially the highly underrated film noir The Sleeping City).

If taking a mighty blow to the forehead with a rifle stock was a great experience, it’s how I would describe Gunman’s Walk. A tragic script from frequent Ford collaborator Frank S. Nugent as filtered through Phil Karlson’s unsentimental style emerges robust; a hard western that (much like Report to the Commissioner) isn’t afraid to pose questions that can’t be easily resolved. Van Heflin is strong as a cattleman whose old-tyme stubbornness will not bleed out even as he’s crushed to pieces under the weight of his own irresponsibility. The inevitable finale knocks the wind from the viewer. Top-drawer.

Many times we’ve witnessed on-screen an ensemble become unglued as tensions build; sleepless, anxious tensions of conflicting agendas. Rarely does it come off as well as Quantez, another remarkable script from Corman scribe R. Wright Campbell. A post-heist story of morally and physically stranded characters, Quantez achieves an exact type of isolation that I’ve never been quite capable of putting to words: The barren southwestern locale at night. Perhaps a happy accident, this atmosphere wallows over the characters as much as the Apache (treated as a believably motivated group as opposed to the mad ghouls of Lewton’s Apache Drums) who stalk their next move. There are some languid dark stretches, but they complement strongly because they respect the audience’s imagination. It’s a wonderful thing to see Fred MacMurray (navigating a phase of solid western roles) revealing his character in those quiet moments. My selfish plea: More Universal Cinemascope westerns on Blu-ray. (the Germans are showing us up with interesting western fare available on BD including Quantez).

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