Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2016 - Sean Whiteman ""

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Film Discoveries of 2016 - Sean Whiteman

Sean Whiteman is a writer/filmmaker living in Portland. In February, along with his brother, he wrote/shot and edited a video tutorial parody every day as part of their Leap Year project -- after doing the same in 2008 and 2012.
The videos might not be as painful as you're imagining and can be found here:

Sean's "Underrated '86" picks:
Letterboxd and Twitter: @seanwhiteman
10 - Maid To Order (Amy Holden Jones, 1987)
From the director of SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE comes another just-south-of-serious-just-north-of-satire version of typical 80’s genre fare. Ally Sheedy plays a rich kid who, after a cocaine bust, gets wish-upon-a-star’d to a state of poverty where she has to work as a maid in order to regain her status (and the love of Tom Skerritt’s “Dad”).

This scratched the 80’s-vibe itch while also working as coherent movie -- no small feat for those of us used to panning for gold in the VHS shelves and usually only coming up with pyrite.
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9 - Murder In A Small Town (Joyce Chopra, 1999)
Gene Wilder is dead. Unfortunately, that means all the malevolent forces his wistful smile had been keeping at bay for the past eighty-three years are now running wild. So, if you need an extra supplement of his whimsy, to counteract the poisons of your social media feed, you could do way worse than this made-for-A&E movie. He’s fully in his comfort zone as the lead and co-writer and you can tell he wrote the script to his strengths, as it follows his pattern of gentle charm, zingers and then more gentle charm.
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8 - Teen Witch (Dorian Walker, 1989)
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7 - Mississippi Masala (Mira Nair, 1989)
Despite Mira Nair at the helm, I feared this would be some kind of crass culture-clash yuk-fest. Thankfully she had a more nuanced approach in mind. While MISSISSIPPI MASALA does pit a variety of cultures against one another (doling out its share of yuks along the way) it wasn’t the cultures I expected.

Much of the film deals with the complexities between local southern Indian and African American communities as they cope with different and conflicting degrees of racism from each other and the more established white communities.

You don’t see these dynamics at play with one another in movies very often and they yielded a fruitful bounty of both high drama and smirking levity. They veered starkly to the left of the typical whites-against-the-world type of racial examination we get.

The performances were also winsome across the board. Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury’s star-crossed romance at the core was sensual and believably rooted in the eye-flirt chemistry established by the actors.

Sarita’s father’s irrational conflict with Denzel -- which boils over in a beautiful moment where Denzel gets to righteously call out the father’s racist hypocrisy -- is the lynchpin scene of the whole movie.

The patriarch was originally meant to be played by Ben Kingsley (would he have been capable of playing Indian? fnaaa) but was instead played with great strength of sadness by Kingsley’s GANDHI co-star Roshan Seth.

Seth’s yearning to return to Uganda -- a country he had lived in his whole life -- gave poignant juxtaposition to their family’s stateside sense of landlessness and the absurdity of their ill behavior toward the local African American community.

We’ve all got tribal issues we need to work out.
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6 - Scanner Cop (Pierre David, 1994)
I’m currently writing a supernatural script involving cops. While hunting for inspiration (and background material) amongst the stacks and stacks of tapes at my local variety store, I stumbled upon this title and could hardly wait to slam my quarters on the counter to buy it.

I knew SCANNER COP had been successful enough to get a sequel of its own (after itself spawning off from Cronenberg’s SCANNERS) but as a kid something about the movie never seemed legit. I guess, at that age, you figure you need to watch SCANNERS before graduating to SCANNER COP. Who would’ve thunk I would grow to favor the bastard step-child over the progenitor?

The action-horror vibe, Richard Lynch’s calm-creepy villain turn, as well as the practical effects involved in the many freak-out moments has garnered multiple repeat viewings already.
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5 - The White Of The Eye (Donald Cammell, 1987)
I loved this. It gave me the mythic creepies -- not the shallow jumps, but the forces-we-don’t-understand-within-us-willies. It was a poke of horror that pierced my dream lobe.

In tackling the material -- what could be a somewhat-boilerplate slasher premise -- Cammell utilized some experimental technique. Everything from the obtuse script, to the abstract beauty that defines the visual storytelling, indicates he wasn’t interested in attending to the prosaic whims of the boilerplate.

The cinematography was crisp and composed and each scene unfolding at a pace which gave you just enough sensation to fabricate a sense of place and mood -- if not complete comprehension. The film stirred me sinister and left me oddly levitated (due, in large part, to the pitch-perfect finale).

The wonderfully committed performances from David Keith and Cathy Moriarty help congeal the disparate elements. Keith had to walk the tight-rope of being charmingly charismatic while hinting at internal madness while Moriarty had to be in love while being terrified at the same time (a real tight-rope she walked with casual ease).

Also, seeing Art Evans (TRESPASS, FRIGHT NIGHT, DIE HARD 2) appear on screen, and hearing his beautifully-distinct voice, warms my cinematic bones -- even if it’s only for a few minutes (his usual allotment of screentime).
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4 - Deep Cover (Bill Duke, 1992)
A lot of this one’s watchability is due to Laurence Fishburne’s silky-smooth narration. It makes the street-grime-mythos at the center of the noir end up feeling like a velvet-coated alleyway.

Also, heaps of credit to director Bill Duke for never let you forget that you’re watching a thrilling piece of entertainment. The film occasionally flirts with moralizing itself to more “respectable” (higher) ground but then drops a line like the following to bring things back down to the common folk:

“Forget this Judeo-Christian bullshit. The same people that taught us virtue are the very ones who enslaved us, baby.”

This was Goldblum casually defending his deplorable behavior. He and Fishburne anchor the movie (as dealer and undercover-cop-who-is-getting-too-deep respectively).

Their performances start out on a slow simmer and then get cranked over the course of the runtime so, by the end, you feel the weight of their internalized narratives colliding in a sensational way that gratifies the more pulpy aspects of the narrative.

I rewound the tape and hit play as soon as finished it.
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3 - Lonesome (Pál Fejös, 1928)
This was a pure-charm Valentine Day viewing. It had a sweet and playful tone that was very conducive to the bridging of pre-dialogue and talkie-era technique. Two lonely Coney Island types meet and develop a cute thing and the film gets these basic dynamics to really click -- it’s a real meaty meet-cute.

But it’s the small details of gesture which supplement the principal narrative which help make the experience so full and rich. Pound-for-pound, this 69 minute feature is a definite 2016 champ.
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2 - Boys Next Door - (Penelope Spheeris, 1985)
Penelope Spheeris is my real 2016 discovery. I knew who she was since I was a kid thanks to WAYNE’S WORLD but, after watching twenty of her films this year, I can’t help but marvel at the scope of her delicate and strange career.

Between DUDES, SUBURBIA, THE DECLINE TRILOGY and the aforementioned WAYNE’S WORLD, you’re already looking at an all-timer’s resume, but BOYS NEXT DOOR was the one that shook me the most and feels the most vital to today’s discussions.

It lands with effective force because it feels distinctly representative of our current political miasma. At the heart of the film we have two recently-graduated white, lower-class, high school underachievers who are about to start a factory job the following Monday (a vocation they predict will entrap their ambitionless lives until they eventually die as tired old men).

They decide to go to LA to engage in a caveman-inspired weekend where they indulge in their worst impulses. As a lot of us are noticing right now, angry white men don’t have the best “worst” impulses -- this is where the film’s chilling present-day resonance takes effect.

One of the teens harbors violent urges (he talks with a military recruiter about how much killing he would get to do) and he starts to turn this indulgent care-free weekend into an outlet for these long-simmering urges.

The targets of their impotent white rage? The first victim of the duo is an immigrant gas-station employee (dubbed “raghead”), the next is a homosexual man (dubbed “faggot”) and then finally there’s a sexually liberated woman (I’m sure there was a slur for her, but I don’t remember it).

It’s all too easy to see Roy and Bo as a worst-case scenario for these sort of festering feelings in the current American landscape. Though my description of the film sounds like a bummer, Spheeris injects the chilling script with a propulsive force that bears real fruit (and black comic laughs) upon repeat viewings.
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1 - Orlando - (Sally Potter, 1992)
Where BOYS NEXT DOOR was painfully prescient in diagnosing the contemporary targets of angry white man stagnation-rage, ORLANDO somehow manages to transcend timeliness altogether and allows us to indulge in what is timeless instead -- a characteristic that feels all the more essential after a devastating 2016 (a year which couldn’t help but remind you repeatedly about the notion of permanence).

Only Tilda Swinton, and her transcendent line-drive beauty, could inhabit the titular Orlando with such stern frivolity -- an ageless/genderless being whose playful yearning for love, meaning and artistic expression, echoes throughout the centuries with a series of chuckles and winks.

The music levitates the script, the performances work in perfect tandem with the various elements of the sound design, and the jaw-drop-on-repeat photography serves to embolden the other elements into a diamond-cut piece of precision filmmaking. I first watched the VHS alone one Saturday morning in a mess of blankets, then re-watched it five or six times in the weeks following.

It makes the grappling of existential quandaries seem like a worthy (if not still quite silly) endeavor and these types of movies are the rarest of discoveries -- true everlasting nourishers. They fly in contrast to the usual “should I, or shouldn’t I, jump from the ledge?” version of deep experiential contemplations.

The film effectively acts as a supplement for those with perspective-deficiency.

I was then lucky enough to watch ORLANDO with my partner (on an effective dose of hallucinogens) in a trailer at the Oregon coast. Under these heightened circumstances Tilda’s face now lives forever in the ether of my perma-dreamscape.

If you’ve ever tried watching a movie while tripping you probably know the flaws can be exposed with haste (many years ago, a viewing of JERRY MAGUIRE was quickly aborted and replaced with the much more vibe-conducive GHOST DOG).

My main squeeze has now done saintly work by programming a 35MM run of this film to play at 5th Ave Cinema. Sitting at my #1 biggest discovery of this year, I obviously recommend you attend if you’re near Portland (OR) come February.
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beamish13 said...

Nice choices. I've also been discovering Spheeris' work due to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences' and her alma mater UCLA's efforts to preserve and exhibit her films. You're going to love ORLANDO in 35mm; the new print Sony made a few years ago looks gorgeous. If you're in L.A. in February, try to see Sally Potter's debut feature THE GOLD DIGGERS (1983) at UCLA.

sean said...

Thanks for reading! I can't wait for ORLANDO 35mm (still have only seen full-screen VHS). Glad to hear it's a beauty-print too! I just added GOLD DIGGERS to my watchlist (and will definitely seek it out if I make it to LA in Feb -- thanks for the tip!

The real highlight of the year was getting to see Penelope at the Hollywood theatre (they got the spectacular UCLA program you mentioned)! I got to chat with her briefly and see her inspiring short film work. She's real-deal amazing.