Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Jon Abrams ""

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Jon Abrams

Jon Abrams is the New York-based writer, cartoonist, and committed cinemaniac who currently runs Daily Grindhouse. A list of his complete work and credits can be found at his site, Demon’s Resume, if you’re interested in that kind of thing. You can contact him directly and relatively promptly on Twitter as @jonnyabomb.

Charles Bronson crashes headlong into the genre Agatha Christie previously owned – murder mysteries on trains – and makes it his own. The third act becomes a period-piece buddy picture – on a moving train! – between Bronson and the late, great Ed Lauter, who also appeared with Bronson in THE WHITE BUFFALODEATH HUNT, and DEATH WISH 3It’s something I never knew I always wanted. Or else I always wanted it, but I never knew I could actually find it. Here it is!

It’s everything you liked about movies like BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA and KUNG FU HUSTLE all in one place, though it is notably missingJohn Carpenter’s deviousness and Stephen Chow’s sweetness (and probably also the filmmaking chops of both)Normally those qualities would be missed, but there’s so much going on here already that the head spins.Comparisons are useful but really, only the Shaw Brothers could have made this happen. An unstoppably fun kung-fu epic. Important detail: One of the supporting characters is a dragon who acts like a puppy. Now I understand the temptation but please don’t run out on this list to go watch the movie – read the rest first!

CYBORG (1989)
I’m sure it’s crazy to say about a Jean-Claude VanDamme sci-fi action movie, but somehow when I watched this for the first time I was most strongly reminded of the John Hughes movie SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL.Maybe it’s not that crazy. Van Damme’s best movies always had a romantic element – TIMECOP comes to mind, not many others do, but still, I’m sure it’s a good point. In CYBORG, Van Damme’s job is to protect this pretty lady, who it looks like is set as the movie’s love interest, but all the while he’s got this thing going on with the spunky cute girl who’s helping out. Basically he’s EricStoltz and Pearl Prophet is Lea Thompson, and the only difference is, in this movie Mary Stuart Masterson is topless. Also, in SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL everybody was named after members of the Rolling Stones, whereas in CYBORG everyone is named after guitars.

DEMONS 2 (1986)
1985’s DEMONS is a fun and crazy Italian horror film, produced by Dario Argento (then on a hot streak) and directed by Lamberto Bava (Mario’s son), in which vicious and horrible demons attack a movie theater and attempt to murder everyone in it. That’s just about all that happens, and it’s just about all you need. The only thingthat is more crazy and fun -- and gross -- than DEMONSis its sequel.
DEMONS 2 somehow ups the ante. It has a puppet, for one thing, which is a massive deal.
In this one, the murderous and gross demons attack the residents of a high-rise apartment building, including the many people who happen to be using the fitness gym at night, because this happened in the 1980s. Creatures come out of TVs more often than they do in all the POLTERGEIST and THE RING movies combined. As in the first movie, the demons have the ability to rewrite reality. Basically if Luigi Pirandello made splatter movies, this would be the result.

There are more good movies about Ed Gein than there are about Jackie Robinson. Think about that for a minute. It’s pretty unfortunate for us as a species. That said, this particular Ed Gein movie is one of the better ones – keeping in mind this is a subgenre that includesPSYCHO and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. Alan Ormsby, who wrote CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS andDEATHDREAM for Bob Clark, co-directed this one, with Bob Clark producing. It may never stop being hysterical to me that most of America watches a Bob Clark movie (A CHRISTMAS STORY) on a 24-hour loop every Christmas, completely unaware of what he was up to during the 1970s. DERANGED features a spooky lead performance by Roberts Blossom, probably best known for his role in a different Christmas movie,HOME ALONE. He’s the old man next door who keeps freaking out Macaulay Culkin. In that movie, of course, he turns out to be a sweetheart, but in DERANGED, hemakes a much more convincing bad neighbor.
Roberts Blossom plays “Ezra Cobb,” the Ed Geincharacter, who decorates his house with corpses he dug up and soon enough, gets into the habit of murdering people.DERANGED is the most effective kind of horror movie to me, the sort – like THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE – that feels like it was made by madmen, even though surely Roberts Blossom and Alan Ormsbyand company were/are perfectly nice people. While you’re watching DERANGED, you feel like you’re visiting with sick-os, and that’s the highest compliment a horror movie can hope to get.

ESCAPE 2000 (1982)
Brian Trenchard-Smith directed this action-exploitation epic, an Australian update of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, that co-stars Steve Railsbackfrom THE STUNT MAN and the impossibly gorgeous Olivia Hussey. They are two of the several unfortunate captives who are hunted down by cruel rich people in the jungle. ESCAPE 2000 kicks up to the next level of godliness when a freakin werewolf shows up to chomp down on some poor guy’s feet. The movie also goes by the name TURKEY SHOOT, which is obviously the better way to go.

FAUST (1926)
This movie begins with human skeletons riding horse skeletons. In the sky. So. People. Don’t ever tell me you don’t watch old movies. Don’t ever tell me you don’t watch silent movies. All you’re telling me with statements like those is how badly you’re missing out on some of the best things in life.

This is an example of the genre they used to call ‘the woman’s picture,’ the type of film concerned with the trials of the fairer sex and all the attending issues: relationships, career, motherhood, chauvinism. This is thatkind of picture, only it is one starring Raquel Welch, the fiercest sex symbol of all, and it’s set in the world of women’s roller derby. Raquel stomps the competition and romances Kevin McCarthy from INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS in one of the most unlikely cinematic unions ever captured. The nostril flares between the two of them alone…

Dolph Lundgren plays a priest with a Hellboy hand who does battle with the Anti-Christ, in a story set in New York but which looks as Canadian as anything possiblycan. It may be tougher for younger people to remember, but at the end of the last millennium, between 1995 and 2000, there were a whole lot of comically paranoid sci-fi/action movies. Arnold Schwarzenegger made one called END OF DAYS, where he fights Satan using a grenade launcher. THE MINION is the Dolph Lundgren version of that, which means it’s much cheaper but more entertaining. But in the interest of total honesty, I should say that Dolph Lundgren doesn’t exactly have a “Hellboyhand” per se; more of a shitkicking gauntlet. Tom-a-to, tom-ah-to, either way a whole bunch of things get punched.

In which dull California teenagers are plagued by atomic mutant Village People. There are twelve Neon Maniacs in all – a cornucopia of 1980s genre mainstays such as a samurai, an evil surgeon, a Native American warrior, a werewolf kind of guy, an axe murderer, and even a puppet that looks like a mound of alien shit with a single eyeball. It’s basically like the Garbage Pail Kids invaded the horror-movie aisle at the video store. And somehow it’s meant to be scary! NEON MANIACS really exists, buthow? And where are the action figures?

Here’s a really absurd and fun mid-’eighties high-school revenge thriller featuring the great Tom Atkins, the great-looking Lori Loughlin, and a destined-for-greatness JamesSpader as a horrifyingly blond Florida teen crime kingpin. One of the most 1980s movies ever madeand, untilSPRING BREAKERS, maybTHE best movie aboutFlorida ever made.

This movie finds HALLOWEEN star Donald Pleasenceon a tropical island in search of a killer black leopard, somewhat like Jacques Tourner’s THE LEOPARD MAN, only terrible. I couldn’t resist. Maybe I should have. At the very end, for the film’s closing shot, an image of the leopard is layered over an image of DonaldPleasence’s face, which provides the unforgettable sight of a half-leopard, half-Donald-Pleasence abomination of God and nature.

Two things that were extremely popular in the 1980s:POLICE ACADEMY movies, and ninjas. It was perhaps not inevitable that someone would combine the two, but it did end up happening anyway. In this movie, a mime learns to become a ninja. That juxtaposition carries a weird kind of logic, if you think about it, which you definitely shouldn’t.

Jim Brown, Jim Kelly, Fred Williamson, and RichardRoundtree. Hot damn. You don’t need Mount Rushmore when you have this movie’s poster. The movie itself, directed by Fred Williamson himself, doesn’t live up to its cast, but what movie could? Honestly it feels somewhat like a vocal warm-up to 1996’s ORIGINAL GANGSTAS, but hell, I’ll take it.

I haven’t been able to confirm if RABID DOGS was Mario Bava’s answer to STRAW DOGS. Certainly there are similarities in the titles and in the unsparing exo-morality of both pictures. Mario Bava is renowned for his horror films and for his sci-fi fantasy films, but rarer arehis attempts at crime films. Even coming from a renowned and well-practiced horror director, RABID DOGS is incredibly brutal, ferocious, like an unprovoked jab to the throat.

RAW FORCE (1982)
On the Norwegian Wikipedia page for the 1982 exploitation epic RAW FORCE — probably the only time I’ll ever get to begin a sentence that way — we are informed that the movie was banned in Norway in 1984. That’s the most attention any kind of majority, political or moral or otherwise, has paid this movie. RAW FORCE is made for almost no one, because it is apparently made for almost everyone. (Except children. This is not, please, a movie for small children.) Nearly every convention or trope of genre movies from the first seventy or so years of the existence of film is expended in this one rickety heap of madness.
When we discussed RAW FORCE, also known as KUNG FU CANNIBALS, on the Daily Grindhouse podcast, I noted that describing this movie is like fighting a giant squid: Just when you’ve bested one wavy storytelling strand, another one snaps up and grabs you by the throat. It’s a mess. It’s a glorious food-fight orgy of a mess.
Here’s the vintage trailer for the movie that was released in the 1980s, which is quite likely the most joyfully dishonest trailer I’ve ever seenThat trailer literally sells a different movie. The clips are the same, but some of the character names and all of their backstories are totally different. The editors somehow cobbled together a cohesive story from several scenes that have no connection. This is the SHOGUN ASSASSIN of movie trailers. RAW FORCE is plenty of different kinds of fun, but one adjective that does not apply is “cohesive.” When I talked about it on the podcast, I started with the following quote:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
– Anton Chekhov.

So early on in RAW FORCE, when a plane lands on a remote island and a character mentions that the waters surrounding the island are infested with vicious piranha, you can bet you will see those fish by the end of the movie. And if that character is a white-suited human trafficker who looks and talks pretty much exactly like Adolf Hitler, you may fairly assume he’ll be the one to meet them.

Otherwise, RAW FORCE completely ignores the principle of Chekhov’s gun. This movie operates under its own rules, and also it doesn’t have any rules. If you somehow managed to drink up all the movies and television shows of the 1970s and then you barfed them back up, the mess on the bathroom floor might look like this.

Saloon fights, graveyard fights, bazooka fights, hippies inwarpaint, gratuitously naked ladies, karate-chopping hobbit bartenders, giggling monks who dine on human women, ninja zombies, a BOOGIE NIGHTS style group of protagonists calling themselves the Burbank Karate Club, an ornery sea captain, a kung fu chef, an extended riff on ‘Gilligan’s Island’, and the aforementioned worst person in human history, Adolf fuck-his-mother Hitler: All this and more in RAW FORCE.
P.S. If Adam McKay and Will Ferrell were to remake RAW FORCE, that remake would makeeleventeen million dollars. 

STREET WARS is the final film from the fiercely independent writer-director-producer Jamaa Fanaka, better known for WELCOME HOME BROTHER CHARLES and the PENITENTIARY series. This is another one we covered for the Daily Grindhouse podcast.
It’s the story of Sugarpop, a former military cadet who returns to the streets of Los Angeles after his brother Frank, the head of a crack dealing empire, is murdered.Sugarpop takes over leadership of Frank’s organization, with the help of trusted lieutenants Humungus -- who is a very large and very deadly man -- and Christy -- who isone of the most badass transgender characters of all time.Together they turn the enterprise from a criminal one to a righteous one, wiping out rival dealers and ridding the city of the crack epidemic. And they do it by Sugarpopteaching everyone how to fly ultralight aircraft (which you might remember Howard The Duck piloting in the movie of the same name). That’s absolutely right --  it’s BOYZ IN THE HOOD in the skies. It’s also pretty much the exact plot of I’M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA, played 100% straight.
STREET WARS is an endlessly fascinating movie, with a surprisingly energizing early-nineties soundtrack and the curious creative practice of unsynchronized dialogue. The actors all re-recorded their vocal performances and the sound rarely matches the picture, giving the whole thing the otherworldly feeling of a “Spaghetti” Western. I’m also pretty sure there were people having fun in the editing booth – there are bizarre and absurd lines of dialogue scattered throughout that feel like ADR ad-libs, and rather than detracting from the story, this gives the movie a unique kind of energy. If I’m making STREET WARS sound amateurish, I’m failing. This movie feels like the most entertaining movie that could possibly be made on a clearly very limited budget by a clearly very talented filmmaker.

Elk Hills, California is a boom town. Oil-field workers drawn to the town by black gold run wild in the streets, drinking heavily and getting in raucous and very costly bar fights (staged by veteran stuntman Buddy Joe Hooker). This movie is set in the 1970s, when it was made, but it plays out like the Old West. One early bar fight BEGINS with a man getting shot in the gut and then escalates from there. The marauders have shoot-outs in the street with the police. One young man decides he’s had enough.
Ben Arnold (played by Jan-Michael Vincent) is a widower and single father with a nice, pretty girlfriend (played by Victoria Principal). Ben tells the city elders, including the mayor (played by Brad Dexter, the member of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN everyone always forgets) and David Doyle (best known as Bosley from Charlie’s Angels) that he’s going for outside help.
Ben’s older brother Aaron is a Vietnam vet working a lousy menial job at an airfield. Ben recruits Aaron and hisshitkicking drinking buddies from the service to come to Elk Hills to clean it up. Because Aaron is played by the handsome and ruggedly charming singer, songwriter, and movie star Kris Kristofferson, we feel like we may have seen this movie before: Good-guy gunslinger comes to lawless town and cleans it up for the decent folks.Surprisingly, enough this isn’t what happens.

After beating the oil workers down, Aaron makes a deal with some shady characters – one of them played by professional hard-ass Paul Gleason, best remembered for TRADING PLACES, THE BREAKFAST CLUB, and DIE HARD — to shake down the townspeople so that Aaron and his boys can swoop in and collect the protection tax. Aaron takes up with a spacey nightclub singer – Bernadette Peters, who nearly steals the movie away – but his callous treatment of her echoes his cruel treatment of the town. As Aaron’s tyranny escalates, Ben slowly realizes that his brother is kind of a monster, and recruits his own vigilante force to take him down. This happens in a wild, almost absurdly explosive climax well befitting a story with Biblical undertones.
A Vietnam allegory that’s actually about Vietnam, VIGILANTE FORCE was written and directed by a smart, savvy, and sorely under-recognized filmmaker named George Armitage.

Armitage started out directing for Roger Corman (whose brother Gene produced VIGILANTE FORCE). His feature previous to this one was HIT MAN, an Americanized version of GET CARTER starring Bernie Casey and Pam Grier. After VIGILANTE FORCE, he didn’t direct a theatrical feature until 1990’s MIAMI BLUES, the cult classic adaptation of the CharlesWilleford novel starring a young Alec Baldwin. After writing the screenplay for the HBO movie THE LATE SHIFTArmitage directed another cult classic, the John Cusack-starring GROSSE POINTE BLANK. Next,Armitage directed THE BIG BOUNCE, a poorly-received Elmore Leonard adaptation starring Owen Wilson and Morgan Freeman.

That was in 2004. He hasn’t made a film since. This is a mystery that all of humanity should be working to solve.

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