Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Heather Drain ""

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.

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