Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '77 - Bill Ackerman ""

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Underrated '77 - Bill Ackerman

Bill Ackerman is a gigantic cinephile and runs the excellent Supporting Characters Podcast
which is highly recommended! On the show, Bill talks to writers, podcasters, fanzine publishers, programmers, preservationists & more about their creative endeavors & today’s film culture:

Picking only a small handful of underrated favorites from 1977 is hard. I could have just as easily written about RUBY, THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER,
THE HAUNTING OF JULIA, UN SALE HISTOIRE, DEATH GAME, SKIP TRACER, THE PACK, HANDLE WITH CARE, VALENTINO, WHY SHOOT THE TEACHER?, JAILBAIT BABYSITTER, ABAR, NEW YORK, NEW YORK or MAN, WOMAN AND BEAST. I also chose to play fast and loose with festival/premiere dates versus U.S. theatrical release dates, so some of these might be considered 1976 or 1978 films.

Director Joan Micklin Silver’s second feature is one of my favorite hang out movies, an affectionate comedy-drama about the idealistic staff of a Boston alternative newspaper. The film boasts a terrific ensemble cast, including Silver’s future CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER star John Heard, Altman veterans Jeff Goldblum and Gwen Welles, Bruno Kirby, Lindsay Crouse, Marilu Henner and Michael J. Pollard. As a chronicle of romance and anxiety among urbanite writers, it’s an earthier crowd than one encounters in the work of, say, Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach, or Silver’s later CROSSING DELANCEY. I have a weakness for films in which Woodstock Generation characters try to figure out an adulthood that meshes well with their countercultural values, whether it’s in the background (LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH, CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER) or foreground (RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS 7) of the story, and this is one of the best. Fans of Joan Micklin Silver should keep an eye out for the upcoming book on her from author Daniel Kremer.
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Mario Bava directed a number of classics that overshadow this one, and I wouldn’t argue that it’s necessarily a better film than BLACK SUNDAY, BLACK SABBATH, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE or LISA AND THE DEVIL. I first saw this on VHS under the misleading title BEYOND THE DOOR 2. Regardless of what you call it, it’s probably the film of Bava’s I most return to most often. The story concerns a woman who moves with her young son and new husband into the house where her previous husband died. The woman has just been released from a mental institution, and the fact that her husband’s vengeful ghost possesses their son and compels him to do creepy and perverse things begins to put her on edge.

SHOCK was his last feature film as director, and serves as a kind of torch-passing effort. It shows the strong influence of Mario’s son, Lamberto Bava, an assistant to his father as well as the co-writer of the script. It’s an energetic mix of the kind of post-REPULSION thriller of a woman losing her mind, like LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH or IMAGES, blended with the type of evil/possessed kid movies that THE EXORCIST and THE OMEN helped trigger an abundance of. The casting of actress Daria Nicolodi in the lead and the use of a Goblin-like soundtrack from Libra, a score I spoke about on the "Soundtrack Of Terror Vol. II" episode of the Film Jive podcast, make the influence of Dario Argento’s DEEP RED apparent as well.
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Joan Darling is one of those female directors like Claudia Weill (GIRLFRIENDS) and Karen Arthur (THE MAFU CAGE) who emerged in the mid-1970s to make an interesting theatrical feature or two, but found greater opportunities in television.
I can think of few popular films from the early 1970s more square than LOVE STORY, and I always assumed Darling’s FIRST LOVE was a tardy attempt by Paramount to cash in on it. It has some very real flaws, not the least of which is that the supporting co-stars John Heard and Beverly D’Angelo are arguably more charismatic and interesting than the leads, William Katt and Susan Dey. But if you’re in the mood for bittersweet campus romances, the engaging FIRST LOVE is a less sentimental and more sexually frank alternative to Arthur Hiller’s blockbuster weepie.
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Ray Cardona Jr. weds together a ménage à trois softcore romp with a killer shark thriller, a sort of JAWS AND JIM, into THE PACK’s only real rival for the best animal attack film of 1977. Viewers looking for a proper horror movie should be warned that this is primarily an erotic melodrama, especially in the longer international cut that circulates on DVD. TINTORERA is a compelling story of friendship and cheerful hedonism, but one where the tanned young lovers are occasionally bitten in half. Some may wish to know in advance that this nearly qualifies as a sort of shark snuff film, given the amount of real fish killed onscreen during a few extended sequences.
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SEPTEMBER 30, 1955
I’m unaware of anyone presenting a strong case for James Bridges (THE PAPER CHASE, THE CHINA SYNDROME) as an auteur, and I’m not prepared to make one, either. But he was a remarkably consistent journeymen filmmaker, and this oddball entry in the decade’s cycle of nostalgic period-set coming-of-age films (SUMMER OF ’42, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, AMERICAN GRAFFITI, etc.) is my favorite of his. The story concerns a teenage boy (Richard Thomas) with a James Dean obsession who freaks out when his idol dies in an automobile accident. While the film starts off in the expected Baby Boomer-friendly “loss of innocence” territory, it gradually veers toward horror when fellow Dean fanatic proto-goth Lisa Blount enters the picture to break out the Halloween makeup and Ouija board. With atmospheric cinematography by Prince Of Darkness Gordon Willis and reliably eccentric supporting work from actress Susan Tyrrell, this one deserves to be much better known.
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Also known as FALSE FACE, John Grissmer’s (BLOOD RAGE) debut feature as director feels to me not unlike David Cronenberg directing an episode of “Dallas”, a morbid and perverse soap opera with doppelgangers, incest, murder, amoral surgeons and a large inheritance.

An early credit for famed director of photography Edward Lachman, today a regular collaborator of directors like Ulrich Seidl and Todd Haynes, SCALPEL unfolds with more restraint than, say, a Brian De Palma or Pedro Almodovar might employ if telling the same story. But it’s a clever, engaging film that used to be a video store mainstay in the VHS era, now oddly forgotten. Stephen Thrower has revealed that a chapter (“The Blood-Spattered Feminist”) on Grissmer’s films will appear in his upcoming book NIGHTMARE USA: VOLUME 2, which will hopefully raise awareness of this one.

I first became aware of this film when Jonathan Rosenbaum mentioned it in his great book “Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Movies We Can See”. The title immediately jumped out at me because Fugazi had slightly altered it for their song entitled “Last Chance For A Slow Dance”. After years of hunting, I wound up buying a DVD-R off the director, Jon Jost, himself. I have a great love for the existential road movies of the New Hollywood, films like FIVE EASY PIECES, THE RAIN PEOPLE, BADLANDS and TWO-LANE BLACKTOP. But even these gritty, artistic films feel like glossy Dream Factory fantasies when placed beside LAST CHANTS FOR A SLOW DANCE. Filmed on 16mm on a budget of $2,000, the movie follows the exploits of a frustrated misanthrope who drifts around looking for work before descending into unhappy one-night stands and criminal behavior. But the story isn’t the chief point of interest; it’s the way it’s told. The film strips away any romantic “rebel” quality cinematic loners of this sort are often blessed with, and has a style that marries experimental (extended shots that linger on the textures of roads, almost theatrical monologues) and realistic (seemingly improvised vérité-like dramatic scenes) approaches.  

A sergeant (Dennis Hopper) is traveling long distance by train, having returned from Vietnam to transport the coffin of a friend and fellow solider. Over the course of this journey, he encounters a variety of fellow travelers looking to pass the time with alcohol, chess, talk and sex. Henry Jaglom’s second feature employs a loose, episodic structure that allows for plenty of offbeat comic digressions, but the overall tone is quite somber. Part of the legend of Dennis Hopper is that he fell hard into alcoholism and self-destructive behavior during the years between the critical/commercial failure of 1971’s THE LAST MOVIE and his sober mid-1980s comeback with HOOSIERS and BLUE VELVET. Many of his film appearances from these wilderness years have a sad, haunted or eccentric quality that feel informed by his troubled off-camera life, and his compelling work in TRACKS offers the best example of this.
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