Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2015 - Eric J. Lawrence ""

Friday, March 4, 2016

Film Discoveries of 2015 - Eric J. Lawrence

Eric J. Lawrence is the Music Librarian over at KCRW(a wonderful radio station) and I have been a fan of his radio show there for more than 12 years now. It is truly my favorite radio program out there. Quite an eclectic mix of new and old songs, it's described on KCRW's site as thus:
"A musical line-up of criminally overlooked tunes, hidden gems, guilty pleasures and standout selections from the latest releases... from Jacques Brel to Mott the Hoople to Gary Numan to the Fall, and everything in between. Like playing poker with dogs -- only better."
I can't really recommend the show higher than a decade of listenership can I? Check it out!

Eric is also an adventurous cinephile whose tastes I respect very much. In fact, it was he who first turned me onto THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS which turned out to be one of my very favorite films of recent years.
Check out his discoveries lists for 2011, 2012 & 2013 below:

The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)
While Lynch’s name has essentially become synonymous for nightmarish, surreal films, The Elephant Man is a remarkably straight production. The most experimental thing about it is that it was filmed in black and white by Freddie Francis after a near-20 year break from cinematography. Otherwise it is a masterclass in acting, with Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, John Gielgud and John Hurt in the title role all hitting the perfect pitch for their roles. Coincidentally, despite being nominated for numerous Academy Awards, it didn’t win any, losing out to that other rare black and white film from 1980, Raging Bull, in the categories of Best Actor & Film Editing. Clearly, black and white was in that year!

Pitfall (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962)
The debut feature film from acclaimed Japanese New Waver Teshigahara manages to concoct a plot involving ghosts, a mysterious hit man and the arcane world of labor relations within the Japanese mining industry and turn it into a satisfying exercise in surreal storytelling. As he does later with his more well-known films Woman in the Dunes and The Face of Another, Teshigahara teams up with author Kobo Abe and composer Toru Takemitsu (whose work here jars right when it needs to) for a heady stew of a thriller.

Busy Bodies (Lloyd French, 1933)
Exploring some of the sound films of Laurel & Hardy, this short stood out as a personal favorite. Based around the pair starting a new job at a sawmill, they proceed to destroy their new workplace, much to the chagrin of frequent L&H foil Charlie Hall and others. There’s a particularly funny gag involving their primitive car “stereo” that gets a nice call-back at the end of the film.

I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock, 1953)
One of Hitch’s most low-key thrillers, I Confess is an often-overlooked item in the director’s storied career. Despite a superb, but non-traditionally Hitchcockian cast (Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, and Karl Malden, for starters) and the unusual, but beautiful setting of Quebec City, wasn’t much of a hit. One reason may have been that the crisis of conscience that Clift’s Catholic priest character has after taking confession from a murderer, even when he himself finds himself accused of the crime, probably mystified many non-Catholic viewers. Another reason is that Clift’s Method acting mystified Hitchcock! No matter – the film was warmly received by many of the French New Wavers, and one of the director’s biggest hits, Rear Window, was only a year away.

Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978)
This nasty little film is an oddity in a number of ways. It was written by John Carpenter in essentially his Hollywood breakthrough. It is set in the gutter chic fashion world of late-70s NYC, complete with anorexic models posing in apocalyptic settings. It is a rare example of an American giallo, complete with queasy, stabby, first-person perspective murders and wacky twists to keep you guessing. It was designed to star Barbra Streisand, but she turned it down for being too “kinky” (she is featured on the soundtrack). It does feature Rene Auberjonois in an all too infrequent film role (alongside wonderfully sexy/slimy performances from the likes of Faye Dunaway, Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Dourif & Raul Julia). It has some sort of supernatural elements, but doesn’t really address them at all. And it was director Irvin Kershner’s last film before tackling conceivably the most-opposite film possible, The Empire Strikes Back.

King Solomon's Mines (Compton Bennett & Andrew Marton, 1950)
I read H. Rider Haggard's late-19th Century adventure novel last year, and thought it would be worth watching one of the cinematic versions with which to compare it. Lush African vistas, check. Dramatic animal stampedes, check. “Good-natured” colonial racism, check. Tacked on Hollywood romance, double check. Nonetheless, this is one of the more impressive animals “in the wild” kinds of pictures. It all pales by comparison in the wake of gonzo filmmaking like Roar, or even the CGI-fever dreams of The Revenant, but for its time it was impressive to warrant a sequel, 1959’s Watusi. And co-director Andrew Marton also went on to participate in the chariot scene of Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur, which should give you some idea of this film’s approach to controlled chaos.

The Prisoner of Shark Island (John Ford, 1936)
Released during Ford’s intriguing gap between his silent & classic sound-era westerns, this film serves as a worthy history lesson, even if most of it is totally bunk! This evocatively-titled film (which just barely features sharks) tells the story of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth on the run after having assassinating Lincoln. The historical record is still murky as to exactly what their relationship was, but in the context of this film, he is presumed utterly innocent of any conspiracy & through circumstances finds himself unfairly sentenced to life imprisonment by a government thirsty for immediate justice. Warner Baxter gives a dynamic, energetic job portraying a man of principles, while John Carradine has a breakout role of an overzealous, bloodthirsty guard. Despite the historical inaccuracies and some otherwise dodgy politics (including some serious Uncle Tom stereotypes), it does have something to offer about snap judgements to a post-9/11 world.

The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)
Despite being a classic horror fan, and despite owning Universal’s great Legacy DVD set, I realized I had never seen the original Invisible Man all the way through. So I fixed that! Claude Rains has become one of my favorite actors, and he makes his Hollywood debut count, despite being “unseen” for all but the last minute of the film. His physicality and, especially, his velvety voice expertly set the standard for arrogant madness. Whale gives him ample room to gambol about, wreaking havoc & startling the villagers. It’s a little weird to consider it a traditional “horror” film – it is more legitimately an example of early science fiction, with truly remarkable special effects. It is Rains’ unhinged performance that is actually horrific, to the point that I would rather be chased by Frankenstein’s monster than by the mad, unseeable Dr. Griffin. For one thing, he’d be naked!

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