Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2015 - Rik Tod Johnson ""

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Film Discoveries of 2015 - Rik Tod Johnson

Rik Tod Johnson is a dedicated cinephile who can be found writing at The Cinema 4 Pylon:
Here is an Underrrated '45 list he did for RPS late last year:
He can be found on Twitter @TheCinema4Pylon:
Last Holiday (1950) Dir.: Henry Cass
I saw Wayne Wang's 2006 version of Last Holiday when it first came out on video, and I didn't know it was a "version". I honestly sat down to watch it without being aware that Last Holiday was a remake of an older film, specifically a 1950 film starring Alec Guinness, who I feel is one of the most remarkable actors in cinema history. In the normal course of things, such details do not escape my notice. I tend to research everything before I watch any movie, but I guess watching a film with Queen Latifah didn't warrant such consideration. And yet, the plot seemed oddly familiar. Eerily familiar. I am still not sure if I saw the Guinness version of Last Holiday when I was much younger and then lost my memory sense of it, or if I am merely drawing parallels to Joe vs. the Volcano, which has only a slightly similar set-up (a mysterious and deadly disease that sees its put-upon victim head off for a long-deserved vacation, where he experiences great life changes). But as of earlier this year, I finally officially watched the 1950 version, and I don't see how there is any way possible I could have forgotten it if I had seen it before. It instantly went on my list of essential Guinness performances, and in this film, his role as George Bird has so many levels of nuance to it that he may as well be playing multiple characters as he sometimes did. And the film really dropped the floor out from under me at a certain point, and I have yet to recover. For some people, that can turn them against a movie, but for me, that is exactly what I hope for when watching cinema, that it will not only exceed my expectations, but also wildly subvert those expectations at the same time.
Zazie dans le métro (1960) Dir.: Louis Malle
If I had seen this film as a child or as a teenager, I would have hated it and considered it to be one of the most annoying things ever created. I would have railed against it for the rest of my life and steered people away from it as much as I could. But I didn't see Zazie until a few months ago, and either I have gotten easier to please (I know that is certainly not true; the complete opposite is the real truth) or my tastes have broadened enough to allow me to see, though the distance of longing, into a film that is equal parts innocence and youthful anarchy. It is without a doubt one of the oddest displays of familial relationship and independence I have ever encountered. Catherine Demongeot is a true wild child as the unreserved Zazie, who runs free throughout the city causing all forms of chaos, and not really caring at all what anybody thinks of her actions. This was Louis Malle's third feature narrative film, and his relative playfulness behind the camera suits Zazie's mood swings and manic presence well. Completely inventive (for the time) at nearly every turn, and if you don't see the correlation to other later works as diverse as Amelie and Pee Wee'sPlayhouse, then you aren't looking closely enough.
World without Sun (1964) Dir.: Jacques-Yves Cousteau
I grew up as a faraway acolyte of Jacques Cousteau, and he is largely responsible for my interest in oceanography and exploration to this day. His show, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau -- really a long series of specials airing on ABC for a couple of years, but in reruns for a good while -- was often on in our home in my tenth and eleventh years, landing in my brain at exactly the right time. I was already obsessed with sharks, whales, and many other sea creatures, and some of my happiest times were spent on Saturday or Sunday afternoons (when it aired regularly on our ABC affiliate in Anchorage, Alaska) thrilling to the adventures of the Calypso and its sailors. When John Denver put out a single in 1975 called Calypso as a tribute to Cousteau, I goaded my parents into getting the cassette for me so I could play the song over and over again. (I still own that cassette tape.) But times change. After many passing years, the dual release of Cousteau's twin Oscar-winning documentaries, The Silent World and World Without Sun, onto Blu-ray a couple of years ago allowed me to finally take a trip back to revisit the man who had awoken a lot of my conservationist leanings. The Silent World (co-directed by Louis Malle; see Zazie above) shocked me with how politically incorrect and unknowingly destructive Cousteau's early version of scientific study was (they just kill sharks when they get too close and even dynamite a section of water so they can study the fish). For him, taking part in this world was always to be a learning and growing process. By the time World without Sun rolled around in 1964, he had calmed down a bit and started to reflect more on environmental concerns and man's place in the universe. The documentary is essentially a study of a group of his men as they live underwater in a bio-home, and gathering data on their general health and continued ability to function and perform scientific tasks after a sustained duration under the surface of the ocean. The camerawork is excellent, though still a long way from what we are used to now. After the shock of his first film, though, this one allowed me to take a journey back that was closer to what I remembered of the man.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) Dir.: Elio Petri
It seems that there is a clear divide these days between people who believe that all police are corrupt and those that insist that the police could not possibly be corrupt at all. Let's say that I believe that, like any other human beings, police are as likely to fall into temptation as anyone. So, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Police corruption is a very real and proven problem -- in some places it is far worse than others -- but it does not mean that the majority of police practice it. In Italy in the 1970s, Elio Petri was just getting on a roll with a series of films that probed the mindset of his people in changing times. The first of these films was Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, which ended up winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 43rd Academy Awards in 1971. Gian Maria Volonté, who portrayed both villains in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, plays an inspector of police who murders his mistress cold-bloodedly, and plants clues to first lead the police towards others, and then slowly manipulates the evidence to make himself the prime suspect, in order to see if he is indeed above suspicion owing to his high placement within the system. It's basically a schizophrenic cat-and-mouse game where the inspector is both cat and mouse, on purpose. The film is truly the darkest of satires, and there is a large touch of Kafka built into the proceedings. Watching Volonté's character practically lose his mind trying to run around and make sure everything, at different moments in the narrative, either points away from him or directly back at him is richly rewarding as an entertainment. And then, of course, the larger questions about authority and how absolute power corrupts absolutely give even more depth to the film. A must own now for me. I can't wait to watch it again.

The Ninth Guest (1934) Dir.: Roy William Neill
It seems to be just another simple pre-code murder mystery, but this one comes with a bite. A grand partyheld by an unknown host is announced to eight specific guests, none of whom are aware the others have been invited, though all of them know each other. Then the host reveals himself... but only through the radio (the station's call letters are WITS), and tells the partygoers that they are playing a game of death. In the garden outside, there are eight waiting coffins. One by one, for reasons only the radio host reveals, the guests start getting knocked off by the hour. And everyone starts believing that one member of the group is responsible for the deaths. But who?Nearly any mystery fan that watches this film remarks on its similarities to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (aka Ten Little Indians), and they are somewhat correct. Only this film came out five years earlier than Christie's novel, and was it itself based on the 1930 novel The Invisible Host by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning. The Ninth Guest doesn't waste a single precious second of its 67 minutes, and each doomed character is etched memorably in its course. Without any huge names in its cast, it manages to showcase some excellent character actors, manages to display some striking cinematography within the confines of its limited setting, and is thoroughly thrilling to the end. Especially at the end.

And now, one from the other side of excellence, which tickled me nonetheless:
Queen Kong (1976) Dir.: Frank Agrama
I had been trying to see this ultra-low budget rip-off for years, but always ran into bad (some would say good) luck and having my efforts blocked. Released in conjunction with the 1976 Hollywood remake of King Kong, one of the biggest movies of that year (and one of its most notorious ones as well), Queen Kong flips the genders of the main roles, so instead of lovely blonde Ann Darrow (or even Dwan), we get the pun-named Ray Fay (played by no one that really matters) getting carried around the island jungle by a monstrous female ape with giant knockers. It's a bad monster movie, a bad musical, a bad jungle picture, a bad remake, a bad everything... but is sure is fun. Loaded with then-topical jokes about Jimmy Carter and women's lib, practically every scene from the real movies are "aped" with a campy, rickety take on it, with not nearly the same budget for special effects. Rula Lenska -- joke fodder for Johnny Carson for years because of her American TV commercials that tried to play off her reputation as an actress when she really didn't have one here -- plays the Robert Armstrong role as the movie producer who gets everything spinning. Queen Kong is utterly stupid, is poorly acted and produced (and has some typically racist '70s moments), but somehow fascinated me to the point of loving every scrappy, can-do minute of it. A triumph of unfathomable silliness.


The Working Dead said...

Every single film in this article has gone onto my watchlist, or already was there (Zazie Dans Le Metro, Investigation of a Citizen...). I'm particularly excited about the 9th Guest, which I've already tracked down at the internet archive. Thanks for the tips!

George White said...

"No one that really matters" is Robin Askwith, arguably THE icon of 70s British Cinema, probably as iconic to that decade as Michael Caine'd be to the 60s.
Which shows the downfall of British cinema. Star of the Confessions films, appeared in a Carry On, then did lots of telly, a few sitcoms, but mostly guest roles, still an in-demand character actor.