Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2015 - Marc Edward Heuck ""

Friday, January 29, 2016

Film Discoveries of 2015 - Marc Edward Heuck

Marc Edward Heuck runs the wonderful blog, The Projector Has Been Drinking which gets a high recommend from me. Marc's been with this series since it started in 2010, so please check out his other lists as he always brings the good stuff and his list are always greatly appreciated:

2015 may very well be an unusual year for me in that it is most likely I saw more older films than newer ones. As I addressed in my recent Top 13 post, my living situation hit a crisis mode that precluded going to first-run movies, but because of my relationships with multiple repertory venues, I was still able to check out older films and warm a theatre seat as I was born to do. And it was a great blessing, because while I had to put my own Cinema Tremens series in mothballs, plenty of other excellent L.A. programmers were putting some amazing things on screen. So, as always, going in ascending order:

NUNZIO (1978)
The original founders of CineFamily have always been keen on periodically screening a forgotten film for no other reason than that it's virtually unseen, their simple curiosity about that fact, and their irresistible desire to see it. And that was all the impetus they needed to haul out this poor-sweet-soul melodrama written by playwright James Andronica and previous counterculture-chronicler director Paul W. Williams (DEALING, THE REVOLUTIONARY). Equal parts ROCKY and GIGOT, David Proval plays the titular character, a developmentally challenged delivery man in your standard NYC neighborhood full of tired salt-of-earth working stiffs and fuhgeddaboudit mean jerks, and for ninety minutes we hang out with him as he makes discoveries about himself and adulthood. Yeah, it's predictable and derivative as any cash-in that an out-of-touch producer could hand off to out-of-work talent, but shucks, the big lug won me over. It certainly helped that there was such a collective of fine character actors in the mix - Joe Spinell, Tovah Felshuh, Theresa Saldana - with everybody giving sincere performances. It was nice, you can watch it with your folks, who's it gonna hurt?

About a year or two ago, my father found and gave to me the loose-leaf pages of a short story I had written in middle school. I was so horrified I wanted to take out a lighter and burn them on the spot. As such, I can understand some of the reluctance that Edgar Wright perhaps felt over the years to widen the availability of his long-unseen debut film. Thankfully, on its 20th anniversary, he allowed it back into circulation, and all of us who have enjoyed his exuberant, smartly crafted comedies got to see the Wright touch in a rougher nascent form. Much of the movie still holds up quite well, with plucky energy and pacing, some great gags that the Zucker Brothers likely wish they'd come up with, and an overall glee that handily smooths over any sour moments in this freshman outing. While you may need to give yourself a crash course on UK game shows and candy adverts before watching this in order to get the full effect, anyone who's game for a laugh will be pleased. I'm still not showing you my short story though; let's just say I did not have Edgar's gifts when I was his age.

THE T.A.M.I. SHOW (1964)
The opportunities to watch older concert films in a movie theatre setting keeps dwindling every year. Certainly a lot of the appeal has been lost since it's hard to motivate people to assemble in one space to see what can now be obtained from home on DVD, cable, or on the web. But revisiting great historical performances with a live audience in real time can be exceptionally rewarding, and getting to see an uncut print of this legendary roster of talent was one of the highlights of my summer. You get the renewed sensation that music really matters when you experience people applauding in a movie theatre to a classic Beach Boys or Lesley Gore performance, or in my case, the bizarre sadness of watching Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas actually getting BOOOED by the New Beverly patrons during their set! And even after fifty years, there is little to compare to the frisson of you and hundreds of other people in the house feeling the artistic tension of the Rolling Stones trying to close the show after James Brown has dropped the mic, the scenery, and the lighting grid, and all but growled, "Top that!"

Last September the New Beverly took the ballsy step of devoting almost an entire month of their calendar to solely presenting some of the best martial arts productions of the Shaw Brothers' studio - Shawtember. As a fellow who, I'm sorry to say, failed to appreciate the pleasures of aesthetic asskicking in my youth, it was a good crash course in learning just how full of emotion, intrigue, and captivating choreography this genre possesses. This early outing, the sequel to COME DRINK WITH ME (which I look forward to catching up with in the future), was my favorite of the batch, presenting a terrific heroine in Cheng Pei-Pei (later to portray villainess Jade Fox in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON), nimble action from co-stars Lo Lieh and Jimmy Wang Yu, and injecting a romantic quandry that was just as compelling as the sword and fist play. If you're ready to move past Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and delve into the somewhat intimidating depths of Asian action films, this is a good entry portal, especially if you're doing so on a date.

This was a most pleasant unexpected discovery I saw last fall, a western written by Rod Serling (with participation from CRISS CROSS screenwriter Daniel Fuchs and later "BONANZA" producer Thomas Thompson) with a striking early performance by John Cassavetes. Some of the story structure is familiar - a reformed gunman (Robert Walker) trying to peacefully administer land for a wealthier baron, forced to confront the erratic and violent behavior of his kid brother (Cassavetes) as he impulsively brings home a jaded "dance-hall girl" (Julie London) as his wife and taunts homesteaders - but those tropes are elevated by the wonderful erudite Serling dialogue, the manic intensity of Cassavetes, and some not-so-predictable story turns along the way. The post Civil War setting, where former enemies live in uneasy armistice but old grudges persist, and the detail of Walker's character being a former secessionist guerilla fighter, give the story an extra hard kick, and were likely an influence on those elements popping up in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. There's even a brief appearance by fellow contributor Ariel Schudson's nana Irene Tedrow!

Alright, people, I need to throw this uncomfortable question out there: when the fuck did we forget about Lina Wertmuller? Here is the first woman to be given a directing nomination by the Academy Awards, who was parodied on "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE", had five Italian-language crossover hits in America, including one remade into a Richard Pryor comedy, and is still alive and probably full of pungent words to offer us, yet if you go to any of the so-called film nuts that bloviate on the web about important filmmakers and mention her name, chances are they'll first say some nasty crack about Lena Dunham before pleading ignorance. For years, SWEPT AWAY and SEVEN BEAUTIES was a perennial double feature in any good repertory cinema the same way LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT played the drive-ins every summer. LOVE AND ANARCHY was her first American hit, for a good reason: it's a direct hit to the heart, head, and groin, depicting the fatalistic quest of a naive but noble peasant (Giancarlo Giannini) as he goes to Rome to assassinate Mussolini, the prostitute (Mariangela Melato) who gives him shelter in her brothel as he prepares his mission, and the eternal question of whether to die for a lost cause or live in the waning hope the dark times will pass. Giannini, normally such a suave and dashing figure that if there were no such thing as cigarettes, we'd have to invent them for him to smoke, disappears into the role of a moax with too much sincerity for a duplicitious time, and Melato, normally the irresistible Queen Bitch of SWEPT AWAY and FLASH GORDON, has a moving arc as she wonders if her hatred for Fascism may be outmatched by her respect for an ordinary man. If we're going to keep lionizing the '70's, we have to put Wertmuller back in the conversation, believe that.

The first of three important restoration jobs performed by the UCLA Film and Television Archive that I ranked high on my list, both for their entertainment value and in recognition of the preservationists' hard work. This film was almost lost to the ages when the last known 35mm print burned in the infamous Universal vault fire of 2008; thankfully, with diligent searching by the Film Noir Foundation, fragile but usuable elements were found to reconstruct and save it. A cracking cocktail of noir mystery and mordant humor, partly written by two-time husband of Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, and considering the amount of prickly marital relations depicted, probably inspired by real-life events. Ann Sheridan has to constantly shift gears, go from acerbic to conscienscious to sly to scared, and never breaks a sweat unless that's what's supposed to happen. A lot of movies aspire to be both genuinely thrilling and laugh-out-loud witty, and this is as good a source as any to learn that art.

My favorite surprise in last year's Festival of Preservation at UCLA was this completely-unknown-to-me rural drama shot in my home state of Ohio, lovingly restored by preservationist and academic Ross Lipman. First time director Joseph L. Anderson and his writers Franklin Miller and Doug Rapp immersed themselves in the long undepicted environment of Appalachians in the south-east to come up with their story of the multiple hungers of an aimless life in a small town - for better opportunies in the big city, for a night's diversion from the poverty and the boredom, or for intimacy from someone you shouldn't be looking for it from. Anderson directs confidently, with beautiful B&W photography and contemplative, lived-in sequences that predate the style of Terence Malick. Initially acquired for release by exploitation distributor Joseph Brenner, when he wanted to spice it up with sexier scenes, no less than Martin Scorsese (who himself had shot extra nude material for his debut WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR at Brenner's request) said the film was perfect as is; ultimately, Anderson agreed to shoot those scenes for an alternate cut called MISS JESSICA IS PREGNANT, hoping to cash in on the trashy Southern Gothic appeal of then-hits like GOD'S LITTLE ACRE and POOR WHITE TRASH. My mind reels at what elevation could have come for Anderson if Brenner had paired his debut with Scorsese's in select engagements back then; maybe soon someone else could pair them up and compare notes. While Anderson would move into more academic pursuits by co-authoring THE JAPANESE FILM: ART AND INDUSTRY with Donald Richie in 1982, it's stirring to see how he could create art himself as well as critique it.

The last of the three UCLA recoveries that I want to showcase would definitely be an iconoclastic and challenging film in any year past or present. Stanton Kaye's semifictionalized journal of his highly charged professional and personal relationship with writer Michaux French constantly keeps the viewer trying to sort details - Kaye and French use staged names, but the family pictures and histories are real, as are the people they are shown interacting with. Most importantly, midway through the movie Kaye claims to be stepping aside and allowing French to tell her version of events - is this another artistic conceit, or a genuine concession amidst a peak of turbulence between them. There have been plenty of films in the wake of this that want to tell truth through semi-fiction, but when many play as mere navelgazing and indulgence, this carries the viewer through a range of reactions. Also, by virtue of its period of production, it captures a time when this spirit of experimentation and honesty was not yet a trope or a trick, taking us back to that period of excitement and discovery. It was selected in 2013 for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, which surely helped spur this full restoration, and the work done, which included mixing B&W and color stocks in some instances, is extra-commendable. The career turns of both leads is very interesting - Kaye left filmmaking for science, patenting multiple innovations in chip and other technologies through his firm Infratab, and French, who now professionallly uses her film character's name, moved into psychoanalysis. When you watch this collaboration between them, you may just get a whiff as to how they ended up in those directions.

I had missed my opportunity to see Philip Ridley's debut film when it first opened, and as the decades passed without so much as a widescreen laser or DVD release available or any repertory playdates, I wondered if I would ever get to watch it in a proper presentation. Thankfully, Phil Blankenship and his Heavy Midnites series finally obtained a 35mm print to screen, and the film had the same wallop on me as it had for the small audiences it played to at the end of the '80's. One of the few films to understand how children can behave cruelly yet still be innocent at the same time, as well as demonstrate how wild leaps of logic can seem perfectly logical to those with a lack of experience or detail about other events. The story doesn't flinch from the damage and horror a misguided soul can cause; indeed, its true horror is in contemplating what will happen to these characters after the screen goes black and we leave them. Ridley has only directed two other films after this, though thankfully he's been extremely prolific with stage productions, literature, songwriting, photography, and other arts, so we are certainly not lacking in platforms to behold his singular visions. But I've now seen two of his three films, and they've always caused me to want him to make more.

And my choice for the most significant and impactful first-time viewing has to go to Luchino Visconti's vigorous, heartbreaking family epic, made available this year to view in its most complete and best-looking condition ever thanks to the work of Milestone Film & Video, along with Scorsese's The Film Foundation, and apparently even Gucci kicked in funds (amusingly odd since this is a film about characters who could never afford their products in their lifetime, directed by a self-demoted Count turned Communist). Taking neorealism and literary epic, two storytelling styles that seemingly were at odds, Visconti tells of the heartbreaking disintegration of a closely-knit peasant family who move to the metropolis of Milan to escape the bleakness of farm life in southern Italy, but find a different kind of struggle in the city. The limited-minded grow violent, the kind-hearted get used, the smart-minded grow calculating, and perhaps the naive learn nothing. Many have mentioned this film's influence on the later great works of our beloved '70's movie brats, but don't seek out this movie just to play spot-the-reference; let the tension and the tears overcome you and then marvel at the cinematic feast you've devoured. And most importantly, pass it on to a friend.

No comments: