Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - J.D. Lafrance ""

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - J.D. Lafrance

J.D. Lafrance runs the wonderfl film blog Radiator Heaven. Go there:
LADY BEWARE (1987; Directed by Karen Arthur)
Made during her “wilderness years,” after taking a break from making films – burnt out from the debacle that was Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club(1984) and the commercial failure of Streets of Fire(1984) – Diane Lane starred in Lady Beware, an intriguing cinematic detour in her filmography. Essentially a modest B-movie thriller that wouldn’t look out of place on the Lifetime Channel, this was a labor of love for its director, Karen Arthur, but ran afoul of studio interference.

Katya Yarno (Lane) is an aspiring window dresser who arrives in Pittsburgh and applies for a job at a big department store by persistently pursuing its owner Mr. Thayer (Edward Penn). She impresses him with her moxie as she flat-out tells him that his window displays “suck,” but it gets her foot in the door. Eager to impress, Katya works late and creates quite a provocative display on her first attempt, which gets the attention Jack Price (Michael Woods), a hunky guy who begins stalking Katya, watching her while she bathes, and later, her sleeping, all from the vantage point of the fire escape on her building. Soon, Katya is interviewed by Pittsburgh Magazine’s Mac Odell (Cotter Smith, saddled with the thankless nice guy role), who not only likes her window displays, but the young woman as well, much to the chagrin of stalker Jack.

Lane does a nice job of conveying Katya’s youthful enthusiasm and ambition to make it in the big city, but with a hint of being something of a provocateur as her racy displays upset some and excite others. The use of actual locations in and around the city really creates a sense of place that is tangible and grounds things, which offsets its B-movie-ness a bit. Lady Beware is a potent reminder of the real danger stalkers pose and just how scary it is for the target of their obsession. This is all conveyed under the auspices of a B-movie thriller with some of the genre’s lurid trappings, some clunky dialogue and scenery-chewing acting. This is glaringly apparent during the last 30 minutes as Lane succumbs to cringe-inducing histrionics that are meant to show Katya’s increasingly upset nature and how much she’s affected by what Jack’s doing to her.

ALL THAT JAZZ (1979; Directed by Bob Fosse)
Thanks to the Criterion Collection’s outstanding Blu-Ray edition, I finally got to see Bob Fosse’s masterpiece, All That Jazz, which stands as one of the purest expressions of an artist’s creative process. It is also arguably Fosse’s most personal film featuring a brilliant yet mercurial artist, much like the man who made it.

Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is immersed in mounting a Broadway production with an energy and intensity that is fueled by amphetamines, cigarettes, alcohol, and sex. He’s burning the candle at both ends, managing to keep it together during the day while succumbing to his various vices at night only to get up the next morning and start it all over again.

Fosse starts off by immersing us in the day-to-day minutia of creating a Broadway production as we see all kinds of aspiring dancers audition in the hopes of getting a place in the cast. These people put their blood, sweat and tears – everything they’ve got – into making it. We see Joe argue with the producers over whom to cast. Fosse provides fascinating insight as he takes us behind the curtain.

The 1970s was a good decade for Roy Scheider what with films like The French Connection (1971), The Seven-Ups (1973) and Jaws (1975). He closed out the decade with All That Jazz, delivering a tour-de-force performance, acting as Fosse’s cinematic alter ego. The actor delves deep, past the tortured artist cliché to portray a man gifted with genius, but also tormented by his own personal demons. The film takes a fascinating look at what drives an artist and how his behavior affects those around him. Fosse bravely puts it all out there for the world to see and that takes a special kind of confidence in one’s abilities that few possess.

HUSBANDS (1970; Directed by John Cassavetes)
Another passion project for its star and director John Cassavetes, Husbands is, at times, a mess of a film with scenes that go on too long and acting that sometimes comes off as indulgent, but it is also brilliant and fearless as it transcends the men behaving badly cliché (see The Hangover movies) to show how men really behave around each other and how they communicate (or don’t) with each other. It’s a film that can test your patience, but also features some of the best acting ever put on celluloid.

When their best friend dies from a heart attack, three middle-aged married men – Gus (Cassavetes), Harry (Ben Gazzara) and Archie (Peter Falk) – go on a wild bender in an attempt to sort out their feelings about him and towards each other. Cassavetes employs a cinema verite style so that you feel like you’re right there with these guys, which creates a powerful sense of intimacy that is also uncomfortable at times. So, they get drunk and we see them singing and yelling their heads off on the streets of New York City at night. We also see them horse around city streets during the day and Cassavetes films it in a way that feels spontaneous, like they just showed up on a street and filmed a given scene with bystanders in the background.

Cassavetes shows how guys who have known each other for a long time are able to push each other’s buttons and also how they can make each other laugh – all done through a kind of short hand that only comes from guys that are as close as they are.Husbands works so well because it is an honest expression of where Cassavetes’ head was at when he made it. The film is an attempt, on his part, to articulate what it means to be a man and the bond between male friends. It’s not as simple as many of these recent bromance movies make it out to be as he delves into what is said and, maybe even more importantly, what isn’t said.

CANNERY ROW (1982; Directed by David S. Ward)
In retrospect, the cinematic adaptation of John Steinbeck’s famous novel was doomed to fail. Purists were upset that the film was a fusion of Cannery Rowand its sequel Sweet Thursday with an emphasis on the latter, jettisoning the darker tone of the former for a more upbeat vibe. The film’s image was tarnished by a highly publicized lawsuit launched by Raquel Welch who had been fired after only five days of filming and replaced by Debra Winger. Critics and movie-going audiences were put off by the film’s stylized look (it was shot mainly on two massive soundstages) and optimistic tone resulting in poor box office results. However, time has been kind to this intriguing film, which has aged surprisingly well, anchored by sweet, funny performances from Nick Nolte and Winger, and featuring incredibly detailed set design and absolutely gorgeous cinematography.

After the local fishing industry dried up and most of its denizens left, the remnants hang on living their lives in their own eccentric ways. Take Doc (Nolte) for example. He’s a marine biologist that collects aquatic animals and sells them off to colleges and museums to make ends meet. One day, Suzy (Winger) comes into town looking for work. She’s a beautiful young woman that catches Doc’s eye. Not finding much luck at the local diner, she falls in with the prostitutes at the nearby brothel. Pretty soon, a turbulent romance develops between Doc and Suzy.

At this point in her career, Winger was on the cusp of mainstream success when she suffered a minor setback with the commercial and critical failure of this film. No matter, she is very good in Cannery Row, playing a fiercely independent woman who works long enough at the brothel so that she has the money to get her own place. The snappy exchanges of dialogue Nolte has with Winger evoke old school Hollywood comedies much better than the awful, forced attempt at such with the later wannabe screwball comedy I Love Trouble (1994). In that film, he had zero chemistry with leading lady Julia Roberts. Winger and Nolte make for an unlikely romantic couple, but they make it work and you can sense their chemistry right from Doc and Suzy’s initial meeting by the way they look at each other.

Cannery Row seems even more of an anomaly now, but in a refreshing way. It is one of those rare films that features a cinematic world I’d want to visit if I could. Director David S. Ward and his collaborators have created such a richly textured world, with its inviting diners and sun-kissed rocky shore, and populated it with all kinds of vivid, colorful people. They say ignorance is bliss so maybe Cannery Rowworks best if you haven’t read Steinbeck’s novel and just let the film wash over you.

GEORGY GIRL (1966; Directed by Silvio Narizzano)
Having only seen Lynn Redgrave in films and television programs towards the end of her career, seeing this legendary actress so young and vibrant at the beginning of her long, illustrious career in Georgy Girl was something of a revelation for me. She’s absolutely adorable as a young woman finding her way in 1960s London as she navigates her way through the emotional mindfield that is her life. She’s got an absolutely horrible flatmate played with venomous gusto by Charlotte Rampling and has a crush on the latter’s boyfriend played brilliantly by Alan Bates.

The relationship Georgy has with a successful elder businessman (James Mason) is fascinating to watch as it develops over the course of the film in unexpected ways. There is an incredible energy and vitality to Georgy Girl that is epitomized in the insanely catchy theme song by The Seekers. This vibe was certainly indicative of films from this period. It is interesting to see how director Silvio Narizzano manages to simultaneously romanticize life in London at that time while also not shying away from the hardships that Georgy experiences. Right from the get-go, you are rooting for her and this is due in large part to Redgrave’s charismatic, go-for-broke performance, which was a sign of things to come from the talented actress.

TICKET TO HEAVEN (1981; Directed by Ralph L. Thomas)
Forget Jane Campion’s high profile, self-indulgent artsy-fartsy ode to the lure of cults and the subsequent deprogramming with Holy Smoke! (1999), Ralph L. Thomas’ little-seen Ticket to Heaven is the real deal – a low-budget, no-nonsense look at the power religious cults can have over lonely, confused people out of sorts in the world.

The film follows the typical narrative arc of these kinds of films as David Kappel (Nick Mancuso) becomes involved in a religious cult that, initially, seems like a great thing, but the deeper in our protagonist gets, the more dangerous things get. It is scary to see how these people put the zap on David and Nick Mancuso does a great job conveying how his character gradually lose touch with reality. Look for the likes of Saul Rubinek, Meg Foster and Kim Cattrall in early roles.

Ticket to Heaven climaxes during a riveting sequence in which David’s friends and family manage to spirit him away from the cult and bring in a deprogrammer (played with charismatic gusto by R.H. Thomson) to make him better. It is a harrowing, powerful sequence as the deprogrammer tries several tactics to get through to the David before he had his brains scrambled by the cult. This film stayed with me for days after I saw it.

1 comment:

David Pascoe said...

I disagree about the last half hour of Lady Beware falling into histrionics, on the contrary it's a thrilling spectacle as Katya begins to turn the tables on her stalker, but not in the way you might expect. Not a gun in sight! It's a real sleaze fest in parts, but Lane sparkles, Michael Woods is wonderfully dangerous and Cotter Smith has a marvellous moment with Lane where, without words, he conveys the sense of wonder a man feels when he's with a woman who has truly knocked him for a loop.