Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2016 - Jon Spira ""

Friday, February 24, 2017

Film Discoveries of 2016 - Jon Spira

Jon Spira is a documentary filmmaker based in London, England. Between 2013 and 2016, he was the in-house documentary maker for the British Film Institute. Jon's most recent feature documentary 'Elstree 1976' is about the impact of the global success of Star Wars on the lives of the film extras who were hidden by masks and helmets in the background of the first film. It's currently available on iTunes, Amazon and US Netflix. Jon also used to own a chain of indie video stores called Videosyncratic - he's written a book about the experience and anyone nostalgic for video stores and VHS, should check out the Kickstarter campaign at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/832232974/videosyncratic-a-book-about-life-in-video-shops
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Never Cry Wolf (1983) - 2016 was the year I discovered Carroll Ballard. All of his films deal deftly with man's relationship with nature, never dipping into the saccharine and usually with a black edge one wouldn't expect in films nominally marketed as being for children. Never Cry Wolf is a film I had never once heard discussed and had to track down after seeing Ballard's best known masterpiece The Black Stallion. NCW, based on Farley Mowat's autobiographical book of the same name, sees Charles Martin Smith in a rare lead – if not practically solitary – role as a biologist dropped (by Brian Dennehy, in a classically charismatic cameo) in the arctic wilderness to study wolves and their potential role in declining caribou numbers. It doesn't sound thrilling, but this is a rare, sparse, beautiful film. It's dark in its truths about nature and human nature. The cinematography is humbling, the performances nuanced and awkward. It entertained, enthralled and haunted me.
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Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) – Having read Elsa Lanchester's autobiography 'Herself' (and as a voracious reader of film autobiographies, I have to tell you it's one of the very best and you should find a copy right now), I found myself on a Lanchester/Laughton quest for a few months. Ruggles is a shade above your standard comedy movie. It tells the story of an English manservant (Laughton, in the titular role) who is accidentally lost in a card game by his employer and finds himself moving to a Western boomtown to serve his new nouveau riche hillbilly owner. It's rich with thought and reflection but is fantastic for it's marriage of very broad and very subtle humour. Laughton juggles both effortlessly. It's really, really funny and a very touching film.
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Roar (1981) – The only film I can think to compare Roar to is the Jackass film Bad Grandpa – in that, yes, the film has a nominal story, but that is merely a thin veneer of respectability when we all know what we're really here to see. People putting themselves in genuine peril in front of rolling camera. Legendarily, as many as 100 members of the cast and crew on this film were injured – bitten and mauled to various degrees by the film's cast of 110 lions, tigers, leopards and other big cats. Cinematographer Jan De Bont – who went on to direct big movies such as Speed and Twister, was scalped by a lion on set and required 220 stitches to put his head back together. All the more bizarre is the genuine star talent in this movie – Tippi Hedren and Melanie Griffith (who almost loses an eye in an on-screen mauling) suffer through this bizarre vanity project of Hedren's then-husband. It took 11 years to complete and is hard to categorise in narrative or cinematic terms above the fact that it's the craziest, most dangerous idea for a film and you watch it in a constant state of slack-jawed amazement.
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A Generation Apart (1983) – Elstree 1976 got released in the US in the summer and we went out to do some press. There, I met Jack Fisher, the president of our distributors FilmRise and learned that he had directed documentaries. I got hold of a copy of this, his first film. It just blew me away. I have an enduring fascination with the baby boom generation – in many ways, Elstree 1976 is a portrait of that generation – and Jack's film was pure insight. Made in '83, it examines relationships between Holocaust survivors and their children who have grown up as first generation in the U.S. It's an issue which doesn't get talked about much – the Holocaust's impact upon the generation that followed it and I found it both moving and philosophical. As soon as the film finished, I stuck it on again. There's a lot to chew on.
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Sapphire (1959) – The BFI has been hosting their incredible Black Star season through the last few months and I got to see Earl Cameron, now 99 years old, interviewed onstage about his acting career. He was insightful and fascinating and it inspired me to check out this 1959 film by Basil Dearden (available on the Criterion Basil Dearden's London Underground) set. In large part, the film is a 'whodunnit', a beautiful girl is found dead on Hampstead Heath and a couple of police investigators set out to piece together her story. It's only when they realise that she was a light-skinned Black girl passing for White that all of their helpful witnesses start to look like potential suspects. It's brilliantly plotted and rammed full of great character actors at the top of their game. It challenges the audience's own prejudices and is still an incredibly relevant film about race and identity.
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