Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2016 - Rik Tod Johnson ""

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Film Discoveries of 2016 - Rik Tod Johnson

Rik Tod Johnson has seen well over 12,000 feature films (and thousands of short films and cartoons to boot) in his lifetime, and has watched more than a thousand films in a single calendar year at least four times. (Yeah, he keeps a database of every damn thing he sees.) Somehow, he manages to stay married. While he is, at heart, a sci-fi, horror, and animation fan, Rik tries to see movies in all genres. To develop this desire, his motto regarding film obsession is "I will see ANY movie ONCE." For 12 years, Rik has run The Cinema 4 Pylon, a blog devoted to his various interests in film, music, and pop culture. He also hosts the Cinema 4: Cel Bloc animation site, where extended articles based around classic cartoons are featured, and The Shark Film Office, where the history of sharks on film and television is the focus. Rik also launched two new websites in May 2016 with his writing partner, Aaron Lowe: Visiting and Revisiting with Rik and Aaron and We Who Watch Behind the Rows: Stephen King Print vs. Film. Most importantly, Rik almost always roots for the monster.

The Set-Up (1949, Robert Wise)
Much of the time, my film discoveries are not so much “discoveries” for me as they are films of which I have been well aware for a very long time – sometimes for decades – but have just kept putting off for various reasons. This is the one that ultimately hurts me the most, because I feel that in skipping over numerous chances to watch Robert Wise’s The Set-Up over the years, I have squandered the opportunity to truly dig into what turned out to be one of the more exhilarating film experiences of my lifetime. Simply put, I loved this movie so much I cannot stop thinking about it, even a couple of months later. In 2016, I also finally caught up with Wise’s equally gripping Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), but The Set-Up meant more to me overall. Part of my hesitation in seeing The Set-Up for so long was an early (and very misguided) dislike for the acting of Robert Ryan, a performer to whom I have slowly grown accustomed over the decades to the point where I now not only accept him, but quite frankly admire him. Every morsel of praise that I have heard others far more wise than me heap upon this film I now accept as gospel. Raw, hungry performances, near-perfect use of camera and atmosphere, and searing direction in a true real-time setting mark this as a new annual event for me, if not even more. I have catching up to do.
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The Phenix City Story (1955, Phil Karlson)
Yet another film that I have put off over and over again through the years, I was utterly captivated when I finally watched The Phenix City Story, a nerve-wracking, pulsing, near-docudrama featuring an Alabama town torn to shreds by corruption. Based on the real-life events that led to the assassination of Democratic nominee for State Attorney General Albert Patterson in 1954, The Phenix City Story sacrifices the actual facts a bit here and there to tell its story in as gripping a way as possible. This includes a chilling sequence where a young black girl is murdered and thrown onto a lawn as a warning, an event that did not occur in real life but serves the film richly in building dramatic tension. It also perhaps starts off a zillion discussions over whether the filmmaker is doing a disservice to history by misrepresenting the facts in the case of a film largely built on telling a true story, but I feel that if you want to get the full story, you can read a book or a newspaper. I look to narrative, non-documentary films for emotional impact, and this one certainly slams you hard over the head with that impact. The film also hashes over the full, eventual story of Patterson’s son John, who succeeds his father in his nomination through the auspices of the KKK (the Democrats were a different party back then), and if that isn’t a story that is worthy of a full telling onscreen, I don’t know what is. But Karlson’s The Phenix City Story is a film solidly of its time, and even with what many would perceive as narrative flaws, we are lucky the version we have even got made. It’s as gritty and ugly as they can come, but still make you come out with some form of hope for mankind in its resolution, no matter the reality.
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Why Be Good? (1929, William A. Seiter)
There is always room for another great silent comedy in my list of favorites, and I am so happy to have finally seen Colleen Moore in Why Be Good? when TCM did their 90th anniversary tribute to Vitaphone in early December. I had only seen Moore in a 1919 baseball drama called The Busher before this, and frankly, it was so long ago, I did not even remember her or the film all that much. But I had read plenty about her in the intervening years and about some of her later roles, including that of store clerk/flapper Pert Kelly in Why Be Good? Seeing the actual film was to find me falling instantly in love with an actress whose prime was 85 years ago, but consider me a convert to her cult. Completely charming, sexy, and quite obviously a talented and inventive actress onscreen, Moore certainly gives Clara Bow a run for her money in my book (though I am forever more a Louise Brooks guy at heart). The film itself is a lot of fun, jumping from scenes detailing Pert’s family life to excursions into the wee hours with her friend in their nightly clubbing existence to her eventual romance with pre-Commissioner Gordon (‘66 version) Neil Hamilton, as director William A. Seiter juggles the tonal changes and action ably. The film is silent as far as dialogue goes, with some clever intertitles delivering the wit, but the Vitaphone soundtrack discs that went along with the film in its original showings give us sound effects and music that suit the rollicking story nicely. It’s the sort of film I always plan to show people when I hear someone mock silent films for being dull or predictable or simply silly. Beyond that, Why Be Good? has now become, like the other films on this list, a must have for my library.
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The Blank Generation (1976, Ivan Král & Amos Poe)
Another one that I always knew was kicking around but had never actually gotten around to viewing, The Blank Generation is loaded with shots that I have seen consistently throughout my life, but it wasn’t until I knocked it out in a single sitting that it all came together for me. One of the stranger music documentaries that I have ever beheld, the film is comprised of rather rough, low res footage of many of the great bands of the burgeoning punk (and early new wave) scene in the mid ‘70s, mainly at the New York’s seminal club, CBGB. Hanging out in this film are Talking Heads, Blondie, Ramones, the New York Dolls, Wayne/Jayne County, the Patti Smith Group, the Heartbreakers, Television, and Richard Hell, and even bands that my ex-wife used to rave about that I never really got a chance to see before like Tuff Darts. (I was certainly well aware musically of one Robert Gordon, though, who came out of that band.) Viewers beware, though: the performances in this film were shot silently, and do not at all match (in the vast majority of cases) the demo songs that are being played by the same performers on the film’s soundtrack. Lips don’t meet words, and strumming arms don’t meet the riffs being heard. It’s very off-putting, and is an intentional and arty gambit by the directors that had me rather mad at the filmmakers in several instances. But the drive to see these bands live onstage at the outset (or even, for some of the lesser known or unfortunately fated acts, the sunsets) of their careers is too good to pass up. And with perhaps one or two exceptions, I just could not resist the music, regardless of how it is portrayed onscreen.
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Adventures in the Red Sea [Abenteuer im Roten Meer] (1951, Hans Hass)
Another documentary on this list, but one that follows a more traditional vein than The Blank Generation, Adventures in the Red Sea is a remarkable adventure story created by diver, inventor, and oceanographer Hans Hass (think of him, but only lightly, as the German version of Jacques Cousteau, with whom he had both early connections and a rivalry through the years). Hass takes his young and comely assistant Lotte Bayerl – whom he would eventually marry, quite understandably – to the Red Sea to go diving with various sharks, rays, and other fish, and to test out numerous underwater theories and experiments. It’s a documentary of a very old school sort, but it is quite entertaining, though it is as manipulative as Disney’s True-Life Adventures, or, perhaps more fittingly, early Cousteau in eliciting our emotions. I take especial issue with the narration regarding their encounters with whale sharks and manta rays in the films, though I also understand the brutishness of the charges against the gentle creatures given that it was the standard mindset of even oceanographers who dealt firsthand with such animals in those days. It seems a missed opportunity to set the record straight on their behavior, especially when you are actively diving with the creatures and they aren’t actually intending any harm. Otherwise, though, this is a fascinating watch, if only to see the most interesting underwater documentary film before Cousteau started winning Oscars just a few years later.

Seven Waves Away aka Abandon Ship! and Seven Days from Now (1957, Richard Sale)
For reasons of my own, I have watched umpteen films involving shipwrecks and people lost or stranded at sea over the past year, and just as delving into any particular subset of a genre will reveal, the results can be middling after a short while. You get a feel for every possible cliché that could rear its head, and pretty damn quick; the effect can be wearying and boredom often sets in about the midway point in these affairs. But you also realize swiftly that along with the bad or the merely boring comes the good, and in the case of Seven Waves Away (released in America as Abandon Ship!), the really, really good. Seeing this film directly after rewatching a bona fide Hitchcock classic – 1944’s Lifeboat – may well have proven disastrous for me, but instead we get an example where different filmmakers mined the same territory using separate techniques, but both came away as rich as possible. I am pretty certain half my enjoyment over this film is mainly based in watching Tyrone Power – already moving past his matinee idol years – completely lose his shit as a man given dictatorial control of a situation for which he is not quite prepared. Though I have only ever been somewhat lukewarm on his acting abilities, his role as Officer Alec Holmes one of his most vital and powerful performances. The film is very inventive in its use of its limited setting (as in Lifeboat) and in its shuffling of its talented cast. Allusions are made to this being based on a true story, though director Sale based the screenplay on his own short story written almost twenty years earlier. True or not, the film is what matters here, and this tense maritime thriller is certainly worth a look or two.
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Honorable Mentions: Harlan County U.S.A. (1976, Barbara Kopple), Odds Against Tomorrow (1959, Robert Wise), Hitler’s Madman (1943, Douglas Sirk), Portrait of Jason (1967, Shirley Clarke), Cluny Brown (1946, Ernst Lubitsch), Don Juan (1926, Alan Crosland), Wild in the Streets (1968, Barry Shear), Amphibian Man [Chelovek-Amfibiya] (1962, Vladimir Chebotaryov and Gennadiy Kazanskiy), Plucking the Daisy [En effeuillant la marguerite] (1956, Marc Allégret), The Gazebo (1959, George Marshall).

My Top RE-Discovery of 2016
Blithe Spirit (1945, David Lean)
Sometimes discoveries are those films that we have long passed by out of familiarity; films that we may have seen a long time ago, but then forgotten about in the glow of other newer, shinier objects in our path. Some, like this film, merely sit waiting to be discovered anew. I first saw David Lean’s acclaimed 1945 film version of Noel Coward’s repertory stage standard about thirty years ago, but even though I quite enjoyed it when I saw it as a young adult, it seems that I rather misplaced the film afterwards. However, much like the spooks contained within the story itself, Blithe Spirit simply would not stop haunting my life. I have seen at least three stage productions of the show since then, including one with Angela Lansbury in the role of Madame Arcati when it toured through Los Angeles two Decembers ago. Early in our relationship, my own wife also starred in a college production of the play (along with several of our friends), and so memories of the play are always with me. Having never quite managed to purchase the Criterion version of the film over the years, I had to rely on an early morning showing on TCM recently to set things right once and for all. The 1945 film is glorious fun, with Rex Harrison and Ruth Chatterton dealing out topnotch comedic performances, but almost completely blown over in the wake of the boisterous (and hilarious) antics of Miss Margaret Rutherford, who I swear was never actually young, though she seems fit enough to arm-wrestle 17 lumberjacks in this film. I may now have to get the Criterion disc, so I can use it to pull myself out of the funk that Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (my all-time favorite ghost movie) inevitably leaves me in every single time I watch it.
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1 comment:

SteveQ said...

Guess I can't use my "I've seen 12000 films; there's little new to talk about" excuse any more.