Rupert Pupkin Speaks: February 2015 ""

Saturday, February 28, 2015


KISS ME STUPID (1964; Billy Wilder)
Whenever I see that "Written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond" credit at the opening of a film, I know there will be cleverness ahead. They are one of my favorite screenwriting pairs for sure. Between THE APARTMENT and SOME LIKE IT HOT, they are responsible for a couple of the greatest comedies ever. Not only are they masters of the turning of phrases, but they are also remarkable with structure. I often think about Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale's amazing script for BACK TO THE FUTURE and how the structure is gorgeous and all kinds of things are set up and paid off in the most wonderful way. Wilder and Diamond did that kind of stuff in all their scripts. It wasn't as flashy as an 80s time travel movie, but they did it and they did it with exquisite craftsmanship. One of my favorite things in all of cinema is a scene in THE APARTMENT with Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and a broken compact mirror. It is such a powerful moment, but what it comes down to is solid story construction (and a bit of great acting). Wilder and Diamond taught me that so much can brought across with good writing. Construction is one thing that needs to be strong, but these guys go beyond that. When I see KISS ME, STUPID and early on there's a scene where Ray Walston (as a piano teacher) is criticizing his student for adding an extra "deedle" to a classical piece he's practicing, I have to smile. That's just the kind of thing I love from them. Goofy, but clever. Something about their senses of humor and how many of the jokes still hold up. Wilder and Diamond's dialogue is right up there with Preston Sturges, very sharp and often rapid fire. As with some other writers, their words sound best when coming from certain actors. For Wilder Ray Walston is one of those guys. He's a unique comic actor in that he can play just big enough to slot right into the heightened Wilder universe without looking totally ridiculous (unless that's the gag they are going for). Before Sam Jackson for Tarantino or Jason Lee for Kevin Smith, Ray Walston was killing it fur Billy Wilder. Typically this was in smaller (but essential) supporting roles, but in the case of KISS ME, STUPID, Walston us given a more sizable, juicy part to sink his over zealous choppers into. Those that remember Walston from his classic role in FAST TIME AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (or even RAD) will be quite surprised to see the level of manic goofy energy that he is capable of during this period and under Wilder's direction. Between Walston's performance (plus the details of his lack of talent as a songwriter) and Dean Martin's womanizing Wilder-ized version of himself there's much to enjoy  in this underrated entry in Wilder's filmography.
(For a good snicker - watch for the the song titles on Ray Walston's sheet music.)

THE ROAD TO HONG KONG (1962; Norman Panama)
I miss comedy teams. Seems all we get nowadays is solo stuff and ensembles in films. At least we have KEY & PEELE on comedy central to keep things going on the team front. 
Bob Hope is one of my absolute favorite comic actors ever. I must admit to having only known him from the occasional late night TV appearance and his cameo in SPIES LIKE US before Woody Allen's fandom made me dig deeper. When I read some interviews with Allen calling out specific Hope films that he loved (THE GREAT LOVER, MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE), I sought them out immediately. Within a few jokes, it was clear how much Woody had cribbed from Mr. Hope in terms of developing his onscreen persona in his early comedies. The cadence, the self deprecation and unabashed cowardice - Hope really is a master of all these things. I kind of feel like he created a comic persona that not only Woody Allen, but many many others would attempt to emulate for decades and decades. I'm not saying that Bob Hope invented the comic coward character, but he really did bring it to the next level. 
THE ROAD TO HONG KONG is a swan song for this great duo's memorable film series. They made seven "ROAD TO.." films starting with ROAD TO SINGAPORE in 1940 and ending twenty-two years later with HONG KONG. While it's not their best outing (I reserve the right to give that award to ROAD TO RIO), it is quite funny and these guys still have a remarkable chemistry and timing that makes them a joy to watch. And the songs for this film by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen (who famously wrote "High Hopes", "Three Coins in a Fountain", & "Come Fly With Me" among countless others) are quite delightful. What a great way to end this series than by starting this movie with their song "Teamwork". 
Though there were still many films released in black & white in 1962 (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE LONGEST DAY, BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, CAPE FEAR), some of the highest grossers were in color (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE MUSIC MAN, THAT TOUCH OF MINK, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY). I find it interesting that they decided on B&W for this final Road film instead of bringing the boys to the screen in color as they had with their previous outing (ROAD TO BALI). I guess their comedy plays best this way and maybe they wanted to go back to their roots for this last entry.
Joan Collins being the headlining lady is a nice thing too. 
There's a groovy Peter Sellers drop-in role early on 

Tonight Show with guest host Jerry Lewis interviewing Bob Hope in June of 1970:

HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE (1965; Richard Quine)
This movie opens with a fourth-wall-breaking speech by Terry Thomas in which he explains how the Jack Lemmon character once had such a wonderful bachelor lifestyle. He gives a tour of Lemmon's NYC bachelor townhouse and explains how we the viewers could have has this if only we hadn't decided to get married. It's the perfect introduction to the movie and it lays out some very misogynistic, very dated and yet supposedly humorous crap for the makes of the 1965 audience to lap up. You see, this kind of thing is one if my biggest problems with the films of the 1960s as a whole. The gender politics are all messed up and there's this almost institutionalized sexism that was passed off as acceptable and it just sits in my craw and pisses me off. The hole idea/joke of marriage being the end of happiness for men in America is just so obnoxious as to almost make me want to turn a movie off the minute I hear them starting to act this way. The way that women, especially wives, are often portrayed as shrewish and bullying is just so lame (and more to the point - so boring). It just saddens me that there was a time when men could be so blatantly mysoginyst and it was not only alright, but a point of mainstream studio comedy is just something I really hate to think about. Not that things are so much better for women today I suppose, but still this kind of crap just irks me to no end. Anyway, my apologies for the rant. Allow me to delve into a few things I enjoyed about this movie. Number one: Jack Lemmon. One of the greatest actors ever and one of my absolute favorites. There are very few performances he's given that aren't the best thing about whatever movie he might be in. In this particular film he enacts something of a jewel heist near the beginning and shows off some of the more action-oriented stuff I've ever seen him do in a movie. It is a clever and charming setup and is explained after the fact. Lemmon is in his usual affable form here and he and Terry Thomas (who plays his butler) have a lovely and funny rapport. It's almost as good as the rapport that Walter Matthau and George Rose have in A NEW LEAF, but not quite. The script is by the prolific scribe George Axelrod whose credits include THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, LORD LOVE A DUCK and PARIS WHEN IT SIZZLES. This is a passable 60s comedy with a fun opening and an enjoyable final courtoom scene. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Eric J. Lawrence

Eric J. Lawrence is the Music Librarian over at KCRW(a wonderful radio station) and I have been a fan of his radio show there for more than 12 years now. It is truly my favorite radio program out there. Quite an eclectic mix of new and old songs, it's described on KCRW's site as thus:
"A musical line-up of criminally overlooked tunes, hidden gems, guilty pleasures and standout selections from the latest releases... from Jacques Brel to Mott the Hoople to Gary Numan to the Fall, and everything in between. Like playing poker with dogs -- only better."
I can't really recommend the show higher than a decade of listenership can I? Check it out!

Eric is also an adventurous cinephile whose tastes I respect very much. In fact, it was he who first turned me onto THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS which turned out to be one of my very favorite discoveries of 2013.
Check out his discoveries lists for 2011, 2012 & 2013 below:


The First of the Few (Leslie Howard, 1942) Were it not for the eternal affection for “Gone with the Wind,” Leslie Howard might be a bigger footnote in most movie fans’ notebook than he is, despite being a true powerhouse, writing, acting & directing on Broadway and in both US and British films, with Oscar noms & American Theatre Hall of Fame inductions to boot.  His premature death (shot down while flying over the Bay of Biscay by German planes in 1943) makes this self-produced biopic of R.J. Mitchell, the father of British wartime aviation, all the more poignant.  Howard & David Niven (playing his friend & test pilot) make the story of designing the Spitfire both dramatic and entertaining.  I was turned onto this film through the band Public Service Broadcasting, who sample from it judiciously on their song, “Spitfire.”

Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945) Often regarded as the only major noir film made in color, this feverish melodrama blew my mind with its dazzling Technicolor.  Yes, Gene Tierney plays one of the most textbook examples of the femme fatale in all of cinema.  And yes, Cornel Wilde is well suited as the man caught in her trap.  And I wouldn’t want to miss mentioning the pleasures of seeing folks like Darryl Hickman, Chill Wills and especially Vincent Price (in a juicy, non-horror role).  But the gorgeous, rainbow vistas portrayed in the film, from New Mexico to Maine (and properly recognized for an Academy Award for Leon Shamroy’s cinematography), make me wonder why this is not domestically available on Blu-ray.  I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

Scream of Fear (Seth Holt, 1961) We all know the virtues of the British studio Hammer’s horror output of the 50s & 60s (with diminishing returns in the 70s), but their films outside of that genre are less well known.  “Scream of Fear” (or “Taste of Fear,” as it is known outside the US) is a great example of their ability to mount an exceptional production minus the supernatural trappings.  A thriller in an obvious Hitchcock mode, it still features many key figures from the horror branch, including screenwriter Jimmy Sangster (who wrote Hammer’s breakthrough Frankenstein & Dracula pictures), actor Christopher Lee (who claims it the best Hammer film he was in) and director Seth Holt, whose premature death at the age of 47 surely kept him from wider acclaim.  A fetching Susan Strasberg plays a paralysed girl haunted by the disappearing & reappearing corpse of her father.  Top notch acting and some brutal twists make this a thriller to remember.

The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968) 2014 was the year I was introduced to the unpredictable world of Frank Perry.  I also saw, and loved, “Man on a Swing,” but it is his cult favorite, “The Swimmer,” that impressed me most.  I remember hearing about this film for years & not understanding the concept of a guy swimming his way home via his neighbor’s swimming pools.  It’s the kind of crazy concept that could only be mounted today by David Lynch, but Perry makes it all seem perfectly imaginable, bringing John Cheever’s New Yorker story to life in the embodiment of a middle-aged Burt Lancaster.  A cameo from a vibrantly young Joan Rivers was a pleasant Easter Egg to discover in the year of her passing as well.  More Perry will certainly be consumed by me this year!

Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1969) French director Jacques Demy’s debut English-language film is a sequel of sorts to his 1961 film “Lola,” as Anouk Aimee reprises her role as the object of every man’s affection.  But the film serves as much as a Frenchman’s love for late-60s Los Angeles as it does for the love of any woman, as stoic Gary Lockwood (Demy’s second-choice, after Harrison Ford!) roams Sunset Boulevard in search for meaning.  He splits from his beachfront cottage, hangs out with his buddies in the band Spirit, contemplates what to do with his draft notice & eventually rents a camera to take cheesecake photos with the lovely Lola. Demy sets his own pace to match Lockwood & Aimee’s laconic acting styles, so it is no powerhouse of a drama. But it has some of the same sort of magic as many of the late Nouvelle Vague films.  And fans of old LA, when you could drive around Hollywood aimlessly without traffic, will get a special kick out of it.

The King of Marvin Gardens (Bob Rafelson, 1972) Bob Rafelson & Jack Nicholson’s follow up to their collaboration on “Five Easy Pieces,” this film gets bonus points for Jack playing a late-night radio host (a profession dear to my own heart).  But it stands on its own as one of those quintessential early 70s films where the viewer is given no easy answers.  The opening scene is a great example of the slow reveal – we don’t know who Jack is talking to or why or even where exactly he is, but we’re caught up in the story he tells.  Great acting abounds, with the always watchable Bruce Dern as his huckster brother, Ellen Burstyn as an aging beauty queen, and Scatman Crothers as a charismatic crime boss. And the chilly, rundown Atlantic City setting almost serves as a character as well (with the promise of a Pacific island resort serving as the off-screen heavy). Fun to see Jack play the straight man for a change.

Stunt Rock (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1980) One of my favorite trailers of all time.  A rock band featuring a wizard throwing fireballs!  A guy doing pull-ups off the Hollywood sign!  People falling or rappelling off cliffs & tall buildings!  A watermelon being chopped on some guy’s head with a samurai sword!  Cars blowing up!  People blowing up!  A guy fighting a cheetah!  A GUY FIGHTING A CHEETAH!!!  When I finally caught up with the actual movie, I realized it doesn’t consist of much more than this, with the thinnest of plots strung together about an Australian stuntman (Grant Page) coming to LA to hang with his rocker cousin (in the band Sorcery).  And tragically, there is no further expansion of the brief clip of the guy fighting the cheetah.  But there is something absolutely refreshing about a pre-CGI/pre-Jackass exploration of cinematic thrill seekers.  Pure cinema!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Heather Drain

Heather Drain has been writing about fringe film and culture for almost ten years. She currently writes for Dangerous Minds, as well as her own site, Mondo Heather.
She's also on Twitter here:

Every time you discover some new gem, it is your own personal holy grail moment. It's that little high that fuels many a flea market trip, archeological excavation and yes, blog and article scouring. So allow me to share with you some of the new discoveries for me that have made their undeniable thumbprint in all sorts of wild-world-of-strange-and-wondrous-arts sort of ways. Some of the titles may thrill you, while others may have you have questioning my very sanity, but trust that there is not one boring single frame in any of them.

The first one on my list is tied to the biggest musical discovery for me in 2014. Well, I use the word discovery but when I sat down to watch the excellent BBC4 documentary, “Do Not Panic,” covering the history of the legendary and yet vastly underrated musical group, Hawkwind. While in the States, Hawkwind are probably best known for being the band Lemmy was in and unceremoniously kicked out of before forming Motorhead, they deserve so much more. In the documentary, they mentioned the late Robert Calvert, who was the chief lyricist and lead singer off and on for the group throughout the 1970's. It was Calvert who penned their biggest hit, “Silver Machine,” as well as singing and writing the best pop-rock song about terrorism ever, “Urban Guerrilla.”

It was this documentary that sent me down the incredible rabbit hole of both discovering the wide and  quite diverse body of work of Hawkwind but also the world of the late Robert Calvert. The more I read up and discovered about Calvert, the more I have been floored by what a true, dyed-in-the-wool genius the man was and forever is. One of the pieces of work I discovered, thanks to the conservation effort made by his son, Nicholas, was Robert's futuristic stage musical, “The Kid From Silicon Gulch.”

“The Kid from Silicon Gulch” is a science-fiction noir revolving around Detective Brad Sparks (played with perfect Marlowe-archness by Calvert himself), whose life is altered when a gorgeous, blonde Countess (Jill Riches) strolls into his office for help in solving her husband's murder. However, unlike your typical dames, danger and death storyline, Calvert's witty and ahead-of-its-time script that involves themes of computer hacking and crime. Which may sound like old hat now but back when the show made its debut in 1981, very, very few were thinking seriously in those times. One of them was Robert Calvert. Even better is that the music, which is reminiscent in places to the stark electronic sounds of some of the lesser known No wave bands.

While there is not an official release of “The Kid from Silicon Gulch,” luckily the show was videotaped and has been uploaded as an effort of conservation by Robert's son, Nicholas Calvert. His father's body of work in general is truly ripe for the bigger and more proper appraisal, but this is at least a small but pure hearted start.

Continuing on the music-related path, my next discovery was due to picking up a near mint vinyl copy of its soundtrack. I had never seen the film in question before but knew that it has a really checkered past, a tie to one of America's great subversive publications ever and a really tight track listing, including songs from The Modern Lovers, Blondie, Eddie & the Hot Rods, Pat Benatar and more. For seven bucks, it was a great deal and the disc ended up being my Pandora's Box of a film. The title in question? “Mad Magazine Presents Up the Academy.”

Directed by underground film legend Robert Downey Sr and with a cast that included such character actor stalwarts like the great Ron Leibman, Antonio Fargas and Tom Post, as well as a pre-Karate Kid Ralph Macchio, Couple that with a tie to Mad Magazine and it seemed like a no fail. At least on paper. However, there were enough issues during production and post-production, to where star Leibman had his name removed from the credits and Mad publisher William M. Gaines paid Warner Home Video $30,000 to have all Mad-related references, including a live-action Alfred E. Neumann via Rick Baker's on spot and highly creepy mask, removed from the video version. (All of which was later on reinstated for the DVD version.)  

Now these are all things that would deter your average cineaste, but not moi. The potential hot mess factor, coupled with the great soundtrack, the eerie Alfred E mask and the magnificence that is Ron Leibman, all added up to me desperately needing to see it. The final verdict? I actually liked it. Don't get me wrong, the film is a hot mess but it is one with some strong qualities. First and foremost, Ron Leibman. The man is a juggernaut in everything he graces and he is by far, the star, blood and bone, of “Up the Academy.” While there are a tiny handful of Leibman-less gags that do work here, including a really killer one involving the world's worst acapella group, but if his role of chief villain, Major Vaughn Liceman, was handled by a lesser actor, I'm not sure how much of this film I could handle. Leibman is tremendous and elevates the entire production with his presence. That said, the film itself is an interesting Hodge-podge of success and mess. Plus, it beats the hell out of Fraternity Vacation!

Keeping with the music-related theme, Actually Huizenga's short film, “Viking Angel,” much like so much of her work, is truly one of the most unique pieces of video art I have seen in a long time. Huizenga has been weaving her own creative tapestry for years, involving a strong foray into sin-synth pop music often blended with frayed rock edges, as well as having a strong technical hand in her videos, right down to the editing process. Her years of dark and shimmery art culminated with her most ambitious project to date, 2014's “Viking Angel.”

“Viking Angel” takes your old-as-Hollywood-time plot device of a pretty, young ingenue desperate for a role (Actually) who ends up winning her prized role via an audition with a charismatically sleazy agent (Louis C. Oberlander). But as the inevitable casting couch scene starts to play out, the film switches into musical gear, letting you know that you are not in for any typical ride.

The film quickly unfurls a story involving secret occult sacrifices, the goddess Freya, an angel Pope with a demon's voice and a love that may or may nor fair well in such a toxic, blood soaked and money oriented world. “Viking Angel” sports some intensely unforgettable visuals, Huizenga's brilliant and wholly unique editing style, effective and fitting music and a fascinating cast, with Actually, Oberlander, Gabriel Tanaka, playing multiple roles, including a murderous medieval guitarist as well as the aforementioned angel Pope and Huizenga's frequent creative partner, uber-talented photographer Socrates Mitsous as the mysterious Officer Short, all being very stand out and beautifully used. In a musical and film landscape where so often the generic and expected are king and queen, artists like Actually Huizenga are incredible breaths of fresh air.

One of the luckiest film discoveries for me in recent months has been without a shadow of a doubt, the 1977 adult noir, “Anna Obsessed.” After reading the incredible piece on the film, complete with interview with the film's writer, Piastro Cruiso, over at the Rialto Report website, I knew it was something that not only I needed to merely watch, but completely delve into. Some amount of fate was on my side since I ended up connecting with Piastro and landing a copy of the severely out-of-print film. (Not to mention getting to do a long form write-up of the film for the upcoming third issue of Art Decades.)

After all of this buildup, I did have the small fear-thought of what if the film does not live up to my ever expanding expectations? This quickly dissipated as soon as the film started rolling. Moody with a quiet sadness that permeates every frame of the film, “Anna Obsessed” centers around Anna and David Carson (Constance Money and John Leslie), a young married couple whose love life together has become fractured with insecurities. Meanwhile, there is a string of unsolved rape-murders of young women across their town of Long Island. As their relationship starts to reveal more and more cracks, a strange but beautiful photographer in the form of Maggie (Annette Haven) shows up in Anna's life. Soon, both David and Anna become mired in assorted infidelities and even worse, Anna getting raped by the masked rapist/killer. With all of this darkness around, will these two ever see any real light?

“Anna Obsessed” is such a beautiful and yet unrelenting piece of work. Cruiso's script is so tight and poetic in that way that only great jazz songs and noir films can be. The film also features Annette Haven's best acting work as the strange Maggie, though Leslie and Money could not have been better cast as our all too human protagonists. It is one of those films that will seep into your mind and skin and stay with you for days and weeks, if not months and years, onwards.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Ariel Schudson

Ariel Schudson is a film archivist and preservationist. She has earned two Master’s degrees from UCLA, one in Moving Image Archive Studies and another in Cinema and Media Studies. She was recently presented with the Nancy Mysel Legacy Grant from the Film Noir Foundation and will be working with them on future restoration projects. Until then she is working on various freelance assignments, film festival work and any journalism-driven work that may be thrown her way.
On Twitter: @Sinaphile.

See also her lovely Film Discoveries list from last year:
1) WOMAN ON THE RUN - (Norman Foster, 1950) 
This is KINDA cheating. I saw this last year and I’m pimping it for this year. IT’S A GREAT MOVIE & a killer restoration. If you wanna write me hate mail, I’ll take it! So obviously this one is pretty special to me since I work for the Film Noir Foundation & this is our new restoration this year & I was there assisting (to what capacity I could) for the creation of this year’s glorious work. So, I’ve seen certain scenes of this film 30-50 times. Lost count. That’s how it goes. On the big screen? The premiere was a SMASH HIT in San Francisco at the opening of Noir City and in Los Angeles (next place Noir City hits) it promises to be another amazing screening. Get those tix early!! We turned away at least 100 people in SF. Dennis O’Keefe, Robert Keith (Brian Keith’s daddy) and the indomitable Ann Sheridan. Restoring this was amazing. It’s why I do what I do.
--Viewed on: 35mm (and other format stuffs due to restorationy-ness)

2) THE PICTURE SHOW MAN – (John Power, 1977) Ohhhh, I cannot say enough lovely things about this movie!!! RIP Rod Taylor, man. My little print of this is great and it’s just fantastic. Roadshowing silent films across Australia? The progress of film technology? A cute little dog? GENUINE old school projection equipment lent for the film by various archives & museums in Australia? OH YES. This is a goodie. Also, I managed to grab the Hungarian poster after falling in love with it so hard. Just lovely.
--Viewed on: personal 16mm print

3) WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? – (Curtis Harrington, 1971) I’m afraid that if I say too much about this film I will spoil it. But I want to watch it over & over & over again. I am a GIANT Shelley Winters fan and I want to say that this may be one of my very top films of hers. It’s a genuinely good film. While some may shove it into a shlock or “camp” area, please don’t. I found it heart-wrenching and entirely too shattering and ultimately made me very frustrated that we don’t have more meaty films like this to offer for great actresses today. WATCH THIS. So damn grateful to TCM.
--Viewed on: TCM

4) NIGHTFALL – (Jacques Tourneur, 1957) 
Saw this on the David Goodis evening of Noir City last year. Once again we have a member of the Keith family (Brian Keith) only this time he’s playing the heavy. This is SO weird for me to see since I’m used to him as a nice guy! He’s the dad from Parent Trap and With Six You Get Eggroll, y’know?? But Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft work Stirling Silliphant’s screenplay pretty well, and I thought it was a keeper!
--Viewed on: 35mm, Noir City Hollywood, Egyptian Theater/American Cinematheque

5) CRUEL GUN STORY – (Takumi Furukawa, 1964) OK. So what Robert Ryan is to me for American Noir? Jô Shishido is to me for Nikkatsu noir. And I will lay it all on the line and say that CGS may, in fact, be one of the darkest, most hopeless pieces of film work I have ever seen. In other words? I F**KING LOVED THE HELL OUT OF IT. There is zero light in this movie. This is the GERMANY: YEAR ZERO of Japanese film noir. Watch it, but make sure there’s a lot of cat videos or candy lined up afterwards.
--Viewed on: Criterion DVD

6) ANGELS OVER BROADWAY – (Ben Hecht, 1940) I guess this is almost a “no, duh” situation because…it’s goddamn Ben Hecht, right? But my man Thomas Mitchell. That guy is MY MAN. So seriously folks. In the world of character actors, he’s one of the guys I am so crazy about it hurts me. A few others are Roland Young, Charlie Ruggles, Felix Bressart & S.Z. Sakall. But I have LISTSSSSS of them. Please check this film out. Rita Hayworth is just superb. It may have made my “You gotta love this or you can’t love me” arena but I have to see it a few more times to be sure (yes, I have a group of those films. I call them “gatekeepers.”J
--Viewed on: 35mm, Noir City Hollywood, Egyptian Theater/American Cinematheque

7) THE NIGHT WALKER – (William Castle, 1964) 
So I got to see this on a big screen and I couldn’t have been more pleased. Some day I will get my “Castle profile” tattoo but for now, I’ll just be super excited to get to see this film with the inimitable Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck. An even more fascinating film since it was done after they had divorced (and it was a painful divorce from what I have been told), this film is super enjoyable. No gimmicks, but who cares? It was fantastic!
--Viewed on: 35mm, LACMA

8) A COLT IS MY PASSPORT – (Takashi Nomura, 1967) Yeah, another Jô Shisido Nikkatsu noir. Can’t help it. Just so great. Guns, mobs, gangsters, suits. What else do you want really? I dunno. I’m fulfilled.
--Viewed on: Criterion DVD

9) YOU’RE NO GOOD – (George Kaczender, 1965) Okay. This is also kinda cheating again, I guess. This is not a “full length feature film.” It’s a short. But it knocked me on my ass & it is coming from a filmmaker that I now consider to be possibly one of my favorites. This short “educational” film stars Michael Sarrazin waaaaaay before They Shoot Horses Don’t They? And manages to encompass everything I love about the British New Wave in a short film. Only it’s not British. It’s from Canada, by a man who is not Canadian, and is wholly original. This discovery for me was a dream. Juvenile delinquency, super-intimate and diverse Mod-rock dance sequences, all in one film that has a GREAT narrative? Yeah. I wish I could show this to everyone. It’s the magic of what a real 16mm in the 60s could do in Canada. Bless the NFB!!
--Viewed on: personal 16mm print

10) MAN ON FIRE – (Ranald MacDougall, 1957) 
So, this film has Bing Crosby in a dramatic role. And it’s really well done. Great performance by Inger Stephens and not overly cheesy. This film centers on divorce in 1957 and does NOT go towards melodrama. It’s an actual drama. And I was really refreshed by it. It was something that I found to be a real delight and well-made. Modern filmmakers- SERIOUSLY. Watch older films, guys. It’d help!
--Viewed on: TCM

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My Favorite Discoveries of 2014 (Rupert's List) - Part Two

Here are some more of the gems that I managed to come across in 2014. My list of interesting "new to me" watches last year was rather extensive, so I should have at least one more installment after this:

Here's Part One of my list by the way:

HAVING A WILD WEEKEND (1965; John Boorman)
The Dave Clark 5 have quite the swinging pad in HAVING A WILD WEEKEND. It even had a trampoline, which is used several times to fun effect. Overall, the film isn't quite as energetic and frenetic as A HARD DAYS NIGHT, but it still moves along at a good clip, has some interestingly edited bits and features some undeniably catchy tunes by the band themselves. It is certainly more poignant than HARD DAYS though. The "plot" is odd but memorable in that it centers around the boys (of the band) who are working a short stint as stuntmen in commercials for this "Meat Counsel" whose goal is to brand and continue a series of print and TV ads to sell more meat to the public. One of the boys has taken a fancy to the girl that the Meat Counsel has chosen as the face of their campaign. She has become disenchanted with her role and is swept off on an adventure with the dude from the band. This adventure takes the couple a ways from London and into some interesting scenarios whilst the Meat Counsel minions give chase. One of the best sequences in the movie is a wonderful costume party. Costume parties are one of my favorite conventions of movies and television. The soires are so well designed and it's always fun to spot what famous characters that people are dressed up to look like. In this case, costumes for Groucho and Harpo Marx, Charlie Chaplin and Frankenstein play key roles.

THE WALKING STICK (1970, Eric Till)
An affecting 70s romantic drama wherein an introverted, straight-laced woman (Samantha Eggar) finds herself swept off her feet by a bohemian artist-type (David Hemmings). This features that convention I love which is when the gentlemen continues to pursue the lady despite a lack of interest in the beginning. His pursuit is done in a charming and not creepy stalker-ly way and it's quite endearing. The plot also has some turns which are not the conventional fare for this type of movie. 

FUNNY BONES (1995; Peter Chelsom)
Something of a mix of Woody Allen and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. An interesting companion piece to THE IMPOSTORS. Suffers slightly from being a touch too long, but overall a fascinating film. Cast includes Jerry Lewis, Oliver Platt, Lee Evans, Leslie Caron, Richard Griffiths and Oliver Reed.

POSSESSED (1947; Curtis Bernhardt)
Compelling noir which finds Joan Crawford a woman obsessed with an engineer (Van Heflin) she met whilst in the employ of a rich man. Suffice it to say that he does not quite feel the same way about her. Features a great noir opening involving amnesia. Warner Archive put this out on a nice looking Blu-ray late last year.

DAWN AT SOCORRO (1954; George Sherman)
Another neat western recommend from Laura  G. (of Laura's Misc Musings) who has put me onto plenty of great stuff from the genre. This one is the story of one Brett Wade (Rory Calhoun) a seasoned gambler and gunslinger who has a nose for trouble even when he's trying to find a place to benefit his health (tuberculosis). Well written and tense.

PANHANDLE (1948; Lesley Selander) 
Still another from Laura G. and the best Rod Cameron movie I've seen. A solid little B western with some good dialogue - written, produced and starring a young Blake Edwards (who also makes a fun heavy).

WELCOME HOME, SOLDIER BOYS (1971; Richard Compton)
I think I first heard Josh Olson mention this one during a Trailers From Hell commentary or something. It's sort of freewheelin' 70s drama about some Vietnam veteran solider buddies on a little bender through the south. From the director of MACON COUNTY LINE and you can see some of the connective tissue between the two. Joe Don Baker leads the cast and he's supported by Paul Koslo, Billy Green Bush and Geoffrey Lewis.

ROADBLOCK (1951; Harold Daniels)
Ostensibly a reworking of a DOUBLE INDEMNITY type story, ROADBLOCK stars film noir stalwart Charles McGraw (THE NARROW MARGIN) and features a screenplay co-written by Steve Fisher (who wrote one of my GIVEAWAY - one of my favorite books - among many other things). I've always thought that McGraw's gruff voice and features make him a perfect noir figure. Here he plays a crafty insurance investigator (see also: Fred MacMurray) who meets an even craftier femme fatale (see also: Barbara Stanwyck) in an airport as she pretends to be his wife to get cheaper airfare. McGraw sees her (Joan Dixon) as a "chiseler" right off the bat and he's kinda right on the mark. She very focused on having the very finest things in life asks McGraw "Can happiness buy money?". That kind of says all you need to know about her. And Joan Dixon is quite the cutie too so you just know she's gonna be trouble. She cuts quite a nice frame in a sweater for sure. Definitely the kinda girl you can see yourself contemplating robbing a bank for. This is a solid little noir film though, with a great cameo by the L.A. River. 

Billy Wilder was a filmmaker who had a tremendous impact on me when I was younger and starting to get into cinema in a much more serious and academic way. Wilder and Howard Hawks were and are two of my favorites to this very day. I studied film in college and it was right around the time that I dedicated myself to that path that I started to discover Wilder's remarkable body of work. I saw DOUBLE INDEMNITY and the APARTMENT and I was immediately obsessed and have never stopped loving his movies. That being said, for some reason I had never gotten to see WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION.
The courtroom drama is a genre that's all but disappeared from contemporary cinema. Even an academy award powerhouse like A FEW GOOD MEN is all but forgotten today, especially as far as it having an influence on contemporary movies. Though it may sound like an inherently unexciting (an perhaps uncinematic) atmosphere to some folks, the really great courtroom dramas can be remarkably compelling and engaging. One of the great things about directors like Billy Wilder (and Hawks for that matter) is this remarkably ability to work so well inside of a variety of different genres. Just when you think you have him pegged as a comedy kinda guy, along comes a searing cynical yet powerful portrait like ACE IN THE HOLE or a tense war film like FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO. Wilder is just a master director so it is no real surprise to see him move so deftly between these different types of movies.

WOMAN IN HIDING (1950; Michael Gordon)
Wonderful film noir with Ida Lupino. She plays a gal with a husband she suspects arranged the death of her father to inherit his business and that he wants her out of the picture too. Some real nail biting suspense in this one. Very impressive.

ACT OF VIOLENCE (1948; Fred Zinneman)
For all you need to know with regards to this film, please check out Josh Olson's Trailer's From Hell (that's what finally sold me on watching it):

SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK (1921; Max Linder)
Discovering the films of Max Linder in 2014 (via a nice collection on DVD from Kino), was quite a delight I must say. He is one of those silent masters along the lines of Keaton and Chaplin, but who is surprisingly unknown. SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK was Easily the standout gem from that set. The film has a pretty amazing mirror gag that feels like maybe it influenced the classic sequence the Marx Brothers made famous in DUCK SOUP. It also had lots of great chases and sequences involving Linder disguising himself and hiding from various authority figures. All very clever and quite well done. An unheralded classic. 

NO NAME ON THE BULLET (1959; Jack Arnold)
An excellent, tension-filled slow-burn of a western from the director of CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Audie Murphy starred in my favorite discovery of 2014 (RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO) and this is another solid Murphy flick. Joe Dante is one of the film's biggest cheerleaders which is why I made it a priority.

ALIAS NICK BEAL (1949; John Farrow)
Another Dante recommend and a neat deal-with-the-devil/film noir combo from director John Farrow. Solid stuff from Ray Milland. Needs a decent DVD release.

IF YOU COULD ONLY COOK (1935; William A. Seiter)
Herbert Marshall and Jean Arthur star in this screwball comedy for fans of MY MAN GODFREY and SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS. Feels like a Preston Sturges runoff movie. 


NEW YEAR'S EVIL (1980; Emmett Alston)
I feel like "Holiday horror" sometimes gets a bad rap. It's an oft target for parody when it comes to the genre and folks seem to take great joy in coming up with some oddball one-off holiday to make the title of a would-be horror film. And to be fair, the genre itself kind of set itself up as this kind of target as so many Holiday horror films were made during the rush of early 80s slasher films that came in the wake of HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH. Things like MY BLOODY VALENTINE and MOTHER'S DAY certainly invite folks to take themselves less seriously. MBV in particular is a great slasher movie, even if the title may initially give folks some pause. That being said, NEW YEAR'S EVIL is another in that category that would seem to be coming from a place of silliness or at least an attempt to capitalize on New Years Eve as a holiday for a horror movie to take place on. What director (and writer) Emmett Alston does with that though is interesting to be sure. He creates something of a murder mystery slasher movie out of the whole thing. A psychopath keeps calling in to a New Years Eve TV program to tell the hostess about the killing he's been doing (and will continue to do) throughout the evening leading up to the new year. Though the movie certainly falls into the slasher category, it's also something of a thriller which is a slight change of pace from some of the other films that were flooding theaters around this time. They way Alston uses the countdown to midnight as a literal ticking clock that the killer is working with makes the movie a bit more suspenseful and keeps things moving along more than was the case with some lesser slasher efforts from the era. This movie also has a really good creepy mask that the killer wears and I've always been a fan of a good mask. Sadly, it feels like I haven't seen this trend as much in recent years (though the masks in YOU'RE NEXT are pretty memorable). The cast also has some standouts that are recognizable. Kip Niven's (EARTHQUAKE, MAGNUM FORCE, DAMNATION ALLEY) is a face that will seem immediately familiar to cinephiles, whilst Roz Kelly should ring a bell for Happy Days fans (she played Pinky Tuscadero, Fonzie's girlfriend).
The soundtrack  certainly makes an impression right out of the gate with Shadow's quite delightful theme song for the movie (listen below). I think that having a good opening song is another thing that has been sadly underrated for a while. It really can help set the tone obviously, but if the energy is right it can propel things forward in a fantastic way. I have never seen this film with a crowd, but I can only imagine that this song combined with footage of Hollywood Boulevard and some rather rambunctious characters would have folks looking at their neighbors like, "Alright! Now we're gonna have some fun!". 
Thanks Scream Factory for plucking this one from a slight obscurity and giving it a solid special edition type Blu-ray treatment. Though horror fans are absolutely aware of this classic slasher (especially thanks to it having been on Netflix Instant for a while where many finally got a chance to see it), it needs more love in my mind and this disc will be a big step in getting it that adulation.

Special Features:
-This Scream Factory Blu-ray features an audio commentary with writer/director Emmett Alston (moderated by Code Red DVD's Bill Olsen). There's a little bit too much dead air throughout this one, but overall it's not bad.
-"Call Me Eeevil... : The Making of New Year's Evil" - (37 mins) This newly produced retrospective featurette includes interviews with Director of Photography Thomas Ackerman (BEETLEJUICE, ANCHORMAN), plus actors Kip Niven, Grant Cramer, & Taaffe O'Connell. All parties talk about how they came to the project, their experiences working with Emmett Alston, and some stories of how they developed their characters. All the actors seem to get a kick out of the fact that the movie has continued to have a life since its and something of a cult following years later. 

As with most movie phenomenon in the 60s and 70s, American International Pictures (AIP) always wanted in on the action. When Blaxploitation films began to become a thing after the release of movies like COTTON COMES TO HARLEM and SHAFT, AIP saw an opportunity to throw their hrs into the ring. They didn't have Netflix's in-depth alga rhythms to help determine how they should go about it, but they could easily see that they'd had a great deal of success with horror films over the years and why not just do that again, but make them "Black". Thus things like BLACULA were born.

BLACULA is a much more dramatic, often outright sad film about a cursed man who misses his wife and thinks he's found some kind of reincarnation of her in a modern day woman.
What struck me was how much of a bummer the opening scene was. Basically the main character is having dinner with Count Dracula (which yeah I know is probably a bad idea in the first place). When Dracula starts to speak of the man's wife in terms of wanting to buy her and make her his slave, the man is naturally offended and tries to leave. Dracula ain't having any of it though and he goes to town on both of them. Poor guy. Really much more sympathetic an origin story than I'm used to for most vampire flicks. Actor William Marshall plays BLACULA and he brings a wonderful sense of poise and propriety to the character. This may have to do with the fact that he was primarily a Shakespearian stage actor.

SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM benefits greatly from the addition of the lovely Ms. Pam Grier to the cast. Grier makes any movie she is in better. I am a huge fan of hers.
This film brings Blacula back into the story by having him summoned by the son of a voodoo cult leader. When his mother (the Queen of the cult) dies and does not choose him as her successor, he becomes angry and vows revenge but performing the ritual which conjures Blacula and gets him bitten and turned into a vampire. While I didn't expect to, I ended up enjoying this movie a little more than the first for one reason (Pam Grier) or another. 

On a personal side note, I had my mind blown recently when I finally figured out that William Marshall also played "The King of Cartoons" on some episodes of Pee-Wee's Playhouse. Fantastic.

Special Features:
-Included on this Blu-ray is an audio commentary track (on BLACULA) by David F. Walker (who made a cool Blaxploitation Documentary called MACKED, HAMMERED, SLAUGHTERED AND SHAFTED back in 2004). Walker is a very well-informed commentator and has lots to say about the film itself, the actors (not just the main cast, but also many of the supporting actors as well). As you would imagine from his pedigree, Walker has a great deal of passion for the genre and for this film in particular (whilst maintaining a realistic viewpoint on the movie's flaws). It's a very propulsive, information-packed commentary and one of the better ones I've heard on a Scream Factory disc so far. Criterion-level stuff.
-"Interview with The Vampire's Assistant - Richard Lawson from SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM" (14 mins) - This is the other supplement on the disc and it can be found in the SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM features menu. In this interview, Actor Lawson discusses how he was cast, what he learned about filmmaking on the movie, and his experiences working with William Marshall, Pam Grier and the other actors. Lawson is a very calm, well-spoken actor who is very thoughtful in his recollections of working on the movie. Fun interview.

A few interviews I found online with William Marshall and Pam Grier:

Monday, February 23, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - David Bax

David is co-host of the excellent Battleship Pretension Podcast, which I can't recommend highly enough.


This year, I’m eschewing ranking for this list because it’s too damned hard and opting instead for plain old chronology. So, here are my ten best twentieth century films I saw in 2014, in the order that I saw them

Lord of the Flies (1990)
I had seen Peter Brook’s 1963 adaptation of William Golding’s novel but Harry Hook’s version is a different animal. Where Brook was psychological and haunting, Hook is blunt and visceral in a way that is at times overly literal in both its adaptation and its metaphors but, with the help of Martin Fuhrer’s tactile cinematography, lingering on blood and smoke and flesh, it manages to be quite impactful in its own right.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
I always have to include one or more classic movie I’d never gotten around to before. I watched a ton of Cassavetes this year and it was hard to narrow it down to one (especially given the enticingly banal way he presents Los Angeles in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie). But I had to go with this one because, along with Faces, it’s perhaps the most representative, in that its live-wire sense of realism and improvisation makes it feel almost as if it willed itself to life without any director at all.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989)
There’s an uneasy feeling that comes with watching many of the films of Pedro Almodóvar. His stories are often told with a devil-may-care exuberance despite being stuffed with unsavory and downright upsetting subjects and events. This film not only fits right in; it may be the uneasiest of all because it trusts the viewer to understand the awfulness on parade even when it seems that none of the characters does. The production design, art direction, cinematography and even the score (by none other than Ennio Morricone) make everything feel like a lavish circus act.

Vengeance Is Mine (1979)
Vengeance Is Mine is crammed with so many vicious murders and explicit sex scenes that a cursory appraisal could see it as mere pulp. But director Shohei Imamura is presenting auncompromised breakdown of Japanese life in the decades after World War II. Even a very old country with all its traditions can’t hide from humanity’s rotten core. The lead character,Enokizu, may be a murderer but he’s not the only transgressor. He’s not even the only killer. Everyone he meets in is a liar or a cheater or a peddler of vice or all of the above. Imamura’s compelling, if disturbing, view of mankind is that it is not getting better or worse but simply hurtling perpetually forward, barely cognizant of the damage in its wake.

There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954)
The title and the song are famous but this film never seems to make it onto the lists of the best movie musicals. There are good reasons why, such as its uneven pacing and lack of any real conflict until a rushed dilemma in the final act. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be overcome by Walter Lang’s staging of the individual numbers. When Donald O’Connor sings about being in love while dancing with fountain statuary come to life, it’s so marvelous that it doesn’t matter how undercooked the love story actually is.

Ten Seconds to Hell (1959)
Okay, so the movie is not as badass as the title promises but Ten Seconds to Hell, from the great Robert Aldrich, has plenty of thrills. It’s also easy to cut the film some slack once you learn that the studio cut a half hour out of it against Aldrich’s wishes. As a result, he took his name off as producer but not director.The major character arcs suffer but the sequences of JackPalance and company defusing unexploded ordnance in Berlin after World War II are tense as can be.

“Cops” (1922)
I’m pretty well-versed in Buster Keaton’s features but his shorts are largely undiscovered country for me. I saw “Cops” at an outdoor screening downtown at the Los Angeles Film Festival and, even in the brief running time, felt transported to Keaton’s heyday. I think that’s because so much of his camera and stunt work (he grabs onto a passing car at full speed to make a getaway!) is still so invigorating today.

Jennifer (1978)
I wouldn’t call my enjoyment of Jennifer ironic. Nor would I be so highfalutin as to call it esoteric. Maybe the word I’m looking for is the annoyingly nebulous “meta.” Being aware of the film as a quickie cash-in on the popularity of Carrie lends a knowing interest to every choice. In some ways, it’s a spot-on rip-off, such as Jennifer’s homelife with a religious nut of a single parent. But the tweaks range of lazy (she lives with her dad instead of her mom) to hilarious (instead of being pyrokinetic, Jennifer can summon snakes of all sizes out of thin air) to actually pretty interesting (her status as a scholarship student at a prep school makes the tale of class struggles immediate and allows for the introduction of an extra villain to kill in the form of the headmistress).

Vinti (1953)
Michelangelo Antonioni’s Vinti (The Vanquished) is a triptych of stories about murder. More specifically, the stories are about young (roughly college-aged) European boys and girls committing murder. In France, a group of friends plots to murder and rob one of their own on a picnic because they believe him to be rich. In Italy, a university student gets fed up with the prescribed life path he’s on and joins up with the mafia; he shoots and kills an innocent man in the process of running away from the cops. And in England, a well-mannered loner kills a woman simply to commit the perfect crime but then realizes it’s no fun if no one knows about it and decides to tell everyone anyway. The crimes very nearly earn the oft-employed descriptor “senseless” and Antonioni depicts them with a sickeningly matter of fact gaze.

We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972)
We Won’t Grow Old Together traces years in the relationship of its main characters, Jean and Catherine, but, in contrast to the fluffy romance tales that only depict courtship and laughs and love-making, director Maurice Pialat only shows us the couple at its worst. We see Jean pout manipulatively and, when that fails, resort to physically manhandling Catherine. Occasionally, we see Catherine finally get fed up with Jean’s behavior and his insults and leave, only to be back in an hour or a week. As the story progresses, though, so does Catherine. As she locates her strength and grows apart from Jean, it would be easy for Pialatto revel in his protagonist’s comeuppance – in fact, We Won’t Grow Old Together would still be a decent film if he did. Instead, he makes us feel a bit bad for the son of a bitch.