Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2015 - James David Patrick ""

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Film Discoveries of 2015 - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer with a lifelong habit of obsessive movie watching. His current project, #Bond_age_, the James Bond Social Media Project can be found at thejamesbondsocialmediaproject.com. Find him on twitter at @007hertzrumble.
See his Film Discoveries list from last year:
Slither (1973, Howard Zieff)
Slither belongs to that group of films that “could only have been made in the 1970s.” And the more of these supposed “lesser” films I watch, the more I learn that the decade begat a cynical, anomalous genre of comedy unlike anything before or since. Aimless, pedantic and boasting the forward progress of a cat chasing its tail, Slither left an indelible impression not just because it’s funny as hell, but because it completely undermines the fundamentals of traditional narrative.

Slither opens with violence, devolves into a lazy, comic chase and concludes on a note of existential serenity. At the time of the film’s release, director Howard Zieff was best known as the creator of Alka Seltzer (“Mamma mia! That’s a spicy meatball!”), Polaroid and Volkswagen commercials. His strength at self-contained 30-second spots carries over into this, his feature film debut. Slither‘s staccato orchestration feels like episodic quandaries all heading toward a predetermined fate. There’s an unpredictable rise and fall that keeps the viewer invested. Slither never wastes time explaining the narrative and logical gaps in between. Zieff would rather move along down the road, searching for the next natural pratfall or comic caper. As a result we’re gifted a Peter Boyle MC’d event at veteran’s hall, a Bingo night gone wrong, a state-of-the-art camper demonstration, a shoot-out that obliterates a vegetable stand, and a cop giving Sally Kellerman a lecture about driving barefoot.

If you’ve seen enough of these types of films from the 1970’s, you’ll know that no one walks away from this movie happy. Slither never bothers to wrap the narrative up in a tidy little bow. In fact, Slither seems to revel in keeping the audience at a curiously callous distance. All of the characters are gregarious but unsavory in the most civil fashion. It ends as a meditation on how people can’t escape their nature. James Caan, the perpetual screw up, despite his best intentions, will only succeed at screwing up again and again.

What’s easy to overlook is the actual craft of the film. Photographed by the late, great László Kovács (Ghostbusters, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces), Slither, in any other decade, would have been a tossaway comedy, if it’d even been made at all. A goofy, road chase movie photographed by one of the great cinematographers of the 60’s and 70’s? That’s weird. Can you imagine Roger Deakins or Janusz Kaminski shooting Due Date?
Breaking Away (1979, Peter Yates)
Who knew a movie about cycling and teenage miscreants could be so much fun? Snappy dialogue and surprisingly efficient performances. In a way, it's a kind of traditionally-framed sports movie, yet that's hardly the point. All the going around and around in circles is like life, you see... it’s the tedium of childhood and the need to escape your comfortable childhood stasis, while the overwhelming centripetal force pulls toward your origination. Maybe I’m digging too deeply into the psychology of a silly little “cycling movie.” Or maybe I’m digging just fine.

Breaking Away succeeds because it functions as both an entertaining coming-of-age story for a mismatched group of misfit youths staring at life after high school – not entirely unlike something John Hughes could have conceived – but also as a story about real adolescent disillusionment. Director Peter Yates might be one of the most anonymous directors of the late 1960’s through the early 80’s, despite having directed Steve McQueen in Bullitt and Peter O’Toole in Murphy’s War in addition to the underappreciated The Hot Rock, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Deep, and Krull (yes, I said, Krull!).

Though the film’s largely known as an early Dennis Quaid movie, it’s the other Dennis – Dennis Christopher that binds the film’s humor and heart. The supporting cast keeps the tone light despite the subtle and creeping dread of adulthood. I viewed this film from behind a permanent smile that lingered for days afterward. I made sure that everyone on my Twitter feed recognized the greatness of Breaking Away.
Teen Witch (1989, Dorian Walker)
Let’s see here. Teen Witch is… well… inexplicable. It’s an inexplicable attempt to re-gender Teen Wolf as a musical. It’s borderline unwatchable. It often egregiously miscalculates its audience. But here it is. Among my favorite new watches of 2015.

The first scene is a Vaseline-scrubbed, slo-mo dream sequence. Flowing capes. Shadow silhouettes. Smoke machines. Neon everywhere. A killer 80’s jam.

Imagine the Teen Witch pitch meeting. “It’s Teen Wolf, but for chicks and with music. It’ll be huge!” Well, nobody went to see it. The movie bombed at the box office and despite the litany of killer jams sprinkled throughout the movie, the producers didn’t even think to release a soundtrack for the film. No one, not even the producers thought this movie was any good. In fact, before they realized that there was any demand for a soundtrack, they’d moved on to finance Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. True story.

I stress that Teen Witch is not necessarily an objectively good film. Despite the reasonable budget there’s a few blatant gaffes and dubbing issues. Teen Witch is also an amalgam of all that was right and wrong with the 1980’s. Cinematic cheese just for the fun of it. It also highlights the aforementioned growing pains between the 80’s and 1990’s. The movie misappropriates hip-hop culture, wants to be a weird female empowerment flick but confuses the issue entirely, and doesn’t really have any clear idea what it wants to be. Is this a parody? A musical? A straightforward teen comedy?

I contend that Teen Witch’s director Dorian Walker winks and nods with knowing self-awareness, though I’m unsure if the cast was ever really in on the joke. There’s no other explanation for this movie. The music, the dance routines, the very 80’s tendency to de-sexify an objectively very attractive girl because she dresses in frumpy sweaters rather than skin-tight tanks and mini-skirts. The premise is thus: frumpy girl Louise has a massive scorcher of an unreciprocated crush on Brad. Louise then learns that she’s descended from the Salem witches and that on her 16th birthday she’ll inherit their powers. She, of course, uses them to woo Brad and wreak unanticipated havoc on everyone around her (like turning her cantankerous little brother into a dog). There’s an especially effective gag involving a teacher, a voodoo doll, and a car wash. All of this takes place in and around awesomeful impromptu musical numbers.

How have I missed out on this movie for 26 years? This is my PSA to you. If you haven’t seen Teen Witch, don’t live without Teen Witch any longer, but don’t blame me when it turns out terrible. Because it is. It is terrible. Terribly, beautifully awesomeful.
Saturday Night Fever (1977, John Badham)
I’ve been doing this CinemaShame thing for a couple years now. Each year I pick 12 movies I feel some sort of shame for not having watched. Movies I’ve been told to see dozens of times, the classics that just sit on my shelf and mock my 13th viewing of Police Academy 3. Over the course of the next year, I watch all 12 and write up some thoughts. Or not. It’s laid back like that. The write-ups tend to be half the fun because I’m forced to consider how expectation shaped my enjoyment of the film. My favorite Shame-filled watch from 2015 was the one and only, highly surprising Saturday Night Fever.

All I knew about Saturday Night Fever could be boiled down to the soundtrack (which, of course, I have on vinyl – doesn’t everybody?) and the one scene where John Travolta famously says:

“You know I work on my hair a long time and you hit it! He hits my hair!”

How can you not love that scene? Top five dysfunctional family dinner table scene ever. And then, of course, there’s the groovy disco. Travolta is cajoled into hitting the dance floor with the girl standing behind him and she turns out to be a total square (stiff?), so he ditches her and goes freelance disco demi-god on the expectant populace.

I wasn’t prepared, however, for the “turn” that Saturday Night Fever takes halfway through. My uninformed notions of the film considered Fever to be a movie of bell-bottoms, sequins and an overabundance of fluffery (combination of fluff and puffery). Brooklyn flunkie makes good through dance with intermittent conversations about being poor and Italian to break up scenes of disco. Sure, that’s what makes Saturday Night Fever palatable and pure entertainment, but there’s a dark underbelly here that I didn’t expect.

Saturday Night Fever ends with a most conflicted and uncertain denouement. The viewer can choose optimism. The viewer can also choose disappointment, and a return to the same troubles Tony wanted to escape. We know he’s a good person with good intentions, but director John Badham has left us with the sinking feeling that none of that will be enough to deliver this character fully from the past, the past that will forever drag him away from success… and back to Brooklyn… or even worse… a sequel.
Reign of Terror (1949, Anthony Mann)
Reign of Terror (aka The Black Book) was my favorite first-time viewing from the 17 films I watched at this year’s Turner Classic Movie Film Festival.

Reign is Anthony Mann’s noir-style interpretation of the French Revolution. Shot by John Alton with the aid of legendary production designer William Cameron Menzies, Reign of Terror squeezes every ounce of creative reinterpretation from the scraps of a failed big budget production. It’s beautifully shot, with stunning black and white cinematography. There’s bevvy of devilish villains (one even kicks a cat to solidify his villainy) in extreme close up and a solid starring turn by Robert Cummings. In a supporting role, Arnold Moss’ Fouché steals every scene.

Mann’s tense, purposeful noir-style direction turns the French Revolution into the setting for something fresh and perversely thrilling. This is not a history lesson; I’d be hard-pressed to find anything necessarily factual to take away from the film. Some of this speaks to the film’s origins as a salvaged big-budget picture as well. The set had been left behind by the botched Eagle-Lion production of The Bastille. The lavish Walter Wanger production had overextended itself. Wanger opted to disband rather than continue the debacle and downgraded the production to a B-picture. Enter Michael Mann. Mann handed the fact-laden and pageantry-heavy script over to Philip Yordan (who’d worked regularly with Michael Curtiz and later wrote The Ten Commandments). Yordan turned the historical drama into a pulpy potboiler by adding tongue-in-cheek humor and noirish backstabbing.

At times, the striking visuals and grotesque legion of villains reminds of a serial, or even a stylized comic book adaptation. Reign of Terror feels like something ripped out of space and time. It’s completely outside the realm of historical interpretation and unlike its genre-contemporaries.
Special Mission Lady Chaplin (1966, Alberto De Martino)
The final film in the Italian-produced series of Bond knockoff films featuring Agent 077, Dick Malloy. Played by Ken Clark (Attack of the Giant Leeches), he of the chiseled, iron jaw and fists of fury, Agent 077 is a suave brute with Sean Connery’s cro-magnon sex appeal and very little of his subversively winsome charm.

Directed by Sergio Grieco and Alberto de Martino (originally billed as “Terence Hathaway”), Special Mission Lady Chaplin finds our hero, Dick Malloy, mixed up with a Parisian fashion stylist, a missing nuclear submarine and sixteen AWOL missiles. If you’ve happened across any of the other Ken Clark entries (all rather amazing in their own individual ways), you’ll know the actual plot becomes irrelevant sometime around the 2-minute mark. The “plot” for Special Mission Lady Chaplin (or most any 60’s spy film) is just an excuse to give our hero people to punch and women to ogle. Ken Clark, however, occasionally crosses the streams and punches the women as well. In this final 077 film, we’re given one of the finest women to ogle — Tatiana Romanova of From Russia With Love: Daniela Bianchi. Daniela gets to vamp and vogue as the film’s primary villain, chewing scenery, changing wardrobes and dispatching fools with abandon.

In Lady Chaplin not only do we get to see one of the great Bond girls in a featured role, we get a funny and well-paced espionage romp featuring our favorite American EuroSpy export, Ken Clark and his hamfists of fury.
Rancho Deluxe (1975, Frank Perry)
I wrote about Rancho Deluxe for my Underrated 75 list earlier this year. Normally I don’t like to overlap my notorious RPS choices, but I’ll make an exception for Rancho.

I wrote then: “Rancho Deluxe has all the makings of a cult film without any of the ballyhoo. This is the decadence of the traditional cinematic Western. Why doesn't Rancho Deluxe get its due hyperbolic praise? Perhaps the film lacks a specific genre. It's part teen comedy, part satire, part Western dystopia viewed through the sepia-colored nostalgia that still romanticizes the ideologies of the Old West.”

I recently tossed the DVD on for a second viewing. I was doing other things and just wanted to catch a couple of scenes. I didn’t get around to the “other things.” I’m still just as confused by the lukewarm contemporary reviews and continued lack of appreciation (only readily available on an abominable burn-on-demand 2-pack DVD through Amazon). Rancho might be riffing on familiar Western mythology but it’s hardly a wistful or longing film. The story pits an old fatcat cattle framer (Clifton James) against the town’s teenage misfits (Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston), but that’s hardly the crux of the film. Rancho Deluxe questions the reluctance of the frontier to admit that “the real West” had died decades ago and the locals that turn a blind eye to the youths coming of age without proper education or any potential for employment.

The joy of the film resides in the details. The Big Sky cinematography, non-PC snappy dialogue, and an ensemble cast of talented bit players including Slim Pickens, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Bright and Elizabeth Ashley. Jimmy Buffett and Warren Oates show up as the bar band. The film occasionally wanders and winds without much apparent direction – and in many ways Frank Perry’s film echoes Howard Zieff’s approach to the meandering Slither. Instead of heading out on a road to nowhere, however, Rancho Deluxe meanders and winds without ever leaving the same one-horse town.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974, Sam Peckinpah)
Peckinpah grabs you by the throat, shoves your face into the debauched mélange of violence, greed, and passion. Peckinpah’s direction is static and harsh, unflinching. Bennie (Warren Oates) has four days to find the head of the already dead Alfredo Garcia. The events that follow appear as if ripped from a nightmarish fever dream.

Warren Oates shepherds the film forward with his tense, manic performance, walking the line of charming and despicable. As his ill-fated love interest, Isela Vega, carries a heavy burden as well. Watching her both love and fear Bennie as he becomes increasingly more obsessive and violent is heartbreaking.

Set in Mexico, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is the natural progression of the Western genre as it is filtered through the gaze of the disillusioned audience of the 1970’s (and perhaps Sam Peckinpah’s hellish pursuit of truth in cinema). Peckinpah does not shelter behind genre tropes, winking parody or revisionism (both of which can be used to great ends, as in Rancho Deluxe). Instead, the director pulls the curtain back allowing the audience to witness what had always occupied the off-screen territory of Hollywood, the horrors of the imagination brought to life in sun-bleached, sand-covered, blood-spattered cinematography.
The Innocents (1961, Jack Clayton)
A black screen. The voice of a woman singing while the 20th Century Fox logo fades in and out. The credits begin. Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) appears. She’s praying. For who? For what? The striking, spectral opening portends the events to come.

The Innocents is one of the most haunting movies I’ve ever seen. After watching this as part of my #31DaysOfHorror Shame-a-thon, I immediately went around the house turning on lights. I even needed a Fawlty Towers palette cleanser before finally going to sleep. Clayton managed all of this with shadowy corners, billowy curtains and two small hellions.

Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) becomes the governess for two intensely odd, orphaned children. The children’s uncle explains that (I’m paraphrasing here) whatever happens at the estate is her problem and that he shouldn’t be bothered. Miss Giddens becomes convinced that the house is haunted and nefarious goings-on took place before her arrival.

Victorian England provides the perfect playground for spooky. A huge, sprawling castle with empty rooms full of spiderwebs, dusty pictures and music boxes with tinny, piercing tunes. Repressed manners and libidinous desires. Secrets around every bit of stilted conversation.

Kerr plays the role with tenuous fragility. She’s torn between staying and abandoning the children to their damned station, but the strong woman, the mother in her refuses to leave. The Innocents is a timeless piece of horror cinema. I was shocked to learn that director Jack Clayton went on to direct nothing more substantial than the 1975 adaptation of The Great Gatsby and helmed only 10 movies/shorts/TV episodes in total. While that might have been unfair for Jack, it’s also travesty that we as selfish cinema lovers weren’t given audience to perhaps the full extent of Jack Clayton’s potential.


Bonus Picks:
Rapture (1965) 
(previously discussed in my Underrated ’65 list)
The Front (1976)
Fright Night (1985)
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

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