Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2017 - James David Patrick ""

Friday, March 2, 2018

Film Discoveries of 2017 - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer with a lifelong moviewatching habit. His current projects include #Bond_age_, the James Bond Social Media Project (thejamesbondsocialemediaproject.com) and Cinema Shame (cinemashame.wordpress.com). Follow him on Twitter at @007hertzrumble.We all approach this hobby from one main avenue. We're all staring out into the  same Gothamesque cityscape of cinema history. Sometimes we stick to the primary arteries and sometimes we venture down a seedy back alley in search of something  shocking or radical. We can't all go down these back alleys or they'd get too crowded, so when we find something unique, it's our duty - via this community fostered by Rupert Pupkin Speaks - to share these alleys with the world.

That said, 2017 was a super fun year, wasn't it? With all that's going on in the world,  it's a brilliant thing that we've got so many alleys and avenues out there still to discover. Between my Cinema Shame project and podcast and attending the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival I've got a solid pre-determined stable of film discoveries at my fingertips. Some of these will be fairly obvious (nod your head and pretend to be interested when I talk about Hitchcock and Powell and Pressburger) while others might seem rather improbable (I'm thinking of a particular luridly-titled Eurotrash swashbuckler). Carry on and enjoy the highlights from my year of moviewatching.


Black Narcissus (1947, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
Cinephile obligation forced me to attend Black Narcissus at the 2017 Turner Classic  Movie Film Festival. There was much hullaballoo (and rightfully so) about the film being shown on Nitrate stock. Even if I couldn't muster up any enthusiasm about this Powell and Pressburger film itself - a classic film that I'd "intended" to watch for years - I recognize a once-in-a-lifetime moviegoing experience when I see it. I sat in the fifth row, looking almost straight up at the three-story screen at the Egyptian
Theater. I can't vouch for the Nitrate stock improving the experience since I have no baseline, but the image and the colors leapt from the screen in what felt like three-dimensions. I never knew the application of lipstick could be so intense. Black Narcissus' unsettling build of latent sexual desire thrilled me in a way I thought impossible based on my prior experience with Powell and Pressburger. It's hard to discuss the film's cathartic twist without spoiling it for the unfortunates. I'll merely suggest that Black Narcissus pivots in a single moment, transitioning from a scenic Technicolor melodrama to a psychologically complex thriller, without losing any of its ravishing beauty or dramatic momentum.
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Spione (1928, Fritz Lang)
Despite my apparent predisposition toward watching something called "Spies," I'd never made the effort with this 150-minute Fritz Lang silent epic beyond picking up the Masters of Cinema release. Spione contains so much of the DNA that would become James Bond (the modern spy genre, really) that I found myself wracked with guilt for not having had this film as a backdrop for the entire #Bond_age_project.

Haghi (played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge) masterminds an international spy ring and wields technological threats, murder, sabotage and guile to steal state secrets and establish megalomaniacal power over the world's superpowers. Agent 326 (Will Fritsch) attempts to stop him, but he's distracted by a beautiful woman (who may or may not be employed by Haghi). Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Lang's use of silence and expressionism conveys pervasive, eccentric evil in ways of which sound and/or color could only dream.
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Symptoms (1974, Jose Ramon Larraz)
Preconceptions can be damning. Especially, I think, when it comes to horror filmmakers. So it went with my perception of Jose Ramon Larraz. In my defense, however, I'd read plenty of discussion that superficially linked Larraz with Jesus Franco, and while I hold great affection for a smattering of Franco's films, a great auteur Franco was not. Therefore, Larraz waited on the sidelines until I finally
uncorked Mondo Macabro's stunning Symptoms Blu-ray release.

Much to my surprise (and counter to Larraz's well-documented reputation), Symptoms' pacing comes out of the gothic horror tradition. The film most obviously recalls Roman Polanski's Repulsion, but further scrutiny reveals flavors of Hitchcock. Mood, tone and atmosphere dominate the film. Suspense lies in the anticipation, the constant sense that something - you don't know what - will
violently divert the film's narrative at any moment. Larraz patiently invokes multiple sources of voyeurism, and John Scott's score perfectly complements the camera's study of the voyeurs' uneasy objects of obsession.
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Bells Are Ringing (1960, Vincente Minnelli)
This bold, show-stopping performance by Judy Holliday should have cemented her as one of the brightest stars of the 50's. Alas. McCarthyism and an untimely death muted her supernova personality. Dean Martin - the reason I picked this film up in the first place - gives a true supporting performance in that he stands aside to let Holliday do all the heavy lifting.

Ella Peterson (Holliday) works at Susanswerphone, a telephone answering service for people who can't or won't come to the phone right now. The comically dated high-concept premise functions beautifully as a playground for character development. Holliday and Martin develop strong chemistry, and the supporting cast, which includes Jean Stapleton, Ruth Storey and Frank Gorshin, all fall in line behind them.

Bells Are Ringing plays remarkably free of cynicism. While there's still a little weight to the story, Vincente Minnelli's film (based on the 1956 Broadway production) plays like an overdose of happy pills. I hope that Warner Archive's beautiful Blu-ray release turns a few more people onto its irresistible charms.
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Mill of the Stone Women (1960, Giorgio Ferroni)
Released the same year as Black Sunday, Mill of the Stone Women actually outgrossed Mario Bava's classic in Italy. In the years since, Black Sunday has become an essential genre staple and Giorgio Ferroni's film slipped into relative obscurity.

Released on August 30th, 1960, Mill of the Stone Women also became the first color film released in Italy, which is a useful anecdote for pub trivia and the offhand dropping of impressive film nuggets. But Mill offers even more fun oddities for posterity. In the opening credits, the film gives story credit to a book called Flemish Tales by Pieter van Weigen. As far as anyone knows, no such book exists.

Borrowing themes from House of Wax (1953), Mill of the Stone Women amplifies the horrific mental imagery of corpses imprisoned in a museum-like setting. A Dutch professor of fine arts and self-proclaimed "doctor" uses the blood from ill-fated women to repeatedly revive his terminally ill daughter. The victims become the centerpieces of his macabre, moving art installation. The haunting visages of the women create a prolonged, underlying sense of unease. The dead-eyes of dolls, the smoky complexions of burned or disfigured women. These images fester just beneath the surface even when they're not on screen. The psychological horror of Mill of the Stone Women isn't easily put into words - but it is effective, often more so than the Hammer films which it is clearly emulating.
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Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock)
Like Black Narcissus, it's impossible to call a Hitchcock film a true "discovery." Rope graced my Cinema Shame list for 2017 because it was one of my few unseen (non-silent) Hitchcock films. I legitimately have no excuse for this oversight.

Hitchcock places his beautifully macabre sense of humor on display in this thriller/black comedy. Two spoiled little rich manboys (John Dall and Farley Granger) strangle a classmate and hide the body in their apartment as they invite his friends and family over for a casual dinner party. They do this to challenge the conception of the crime, to prove that anyone can get away with murder - if they're smart and charming enough. Enter Professor Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart's blend
of acidic intellectualism and good-natured aplomb proves to be the perfect foil to Dall's hyper-confidence and Granger's steadily crumbling facade.

Hitchcock's first color film plays out in fits and spurts of subtext and low-lying tension. The gimmick of filming Rope on a single set with the appearance of one long take gives the viewer the illusion of being present for the entirety of the dinner party. Even though the ending will come as no surprise, it's the camerawork and minute details of Hitch's direction that shape the film and the viewing experience.
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In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray)
Easily the best noir I watched this year. Gorgeously shot by Nicholas Ray with a devastating final act.  Bogart goes beyond the Bogie persona, playing with viewer expectations and turning his trademark likable gruffness into something seething and unpredictable. And as much as I admired Bogart here, it's Gloria Grahame that truly smolders. Her character shifts from cold and incredulous to homely and back again. The viewer feels the full force of her emotional range.

In a Lonely Place conveys the darkness of post-World War II America, a Hollywood in decay, and the desperate nature of humans on the fringe. The ambiguous ending only makes Ray's film that much more grim. Without the catharsis of a final verdict, the malice lingers with the expectation that things will only get worse for these unfortunate characters.
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Tower of Screaming Virgins (1968, Franz Antel, Fritz Umgelter)
I never before recognized the entertainment potential of a Three Musketeers/Skinemax hybrid. This quirky, Eurotrashy adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' Tower of Sin features nice production values on a budget, plenty of matter-of-fact nudity, some nice practical gore, and highly competent mugging and
swashbuckling.

This German/French/Italian period exploitation piece boasts more than just the icky sleaze implied by the title. Tower of Screaming Virgins provides gleeful entertainment for those who want a touch of class with their grindhouse cinema. Thanks owed to Snappy Video/Thunderbean Animation for digging up this delight from the depths of obscurity. 
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Theodora Goes Wild (1936, Richard Boleslawski)
Hard to fathom that Irene Dunne was apprehensive about dipping her toe in the comedy genre with Theodora Goes Wild. Other than Carole Lombard, I can't think of another actress of the era that felt more natural in comedy than Dunne. She embraces every minute of screentime, every knowing smile, every flamboyant costume change. The performance garnered her a much-deserved Oscar nod for
Best Actress.

Dunne and co-star Melvyn Douglas showcase fantastic comic timing together in this story of secret-identities clashing against the puritanical little buzzkill of a small town called Lynnfield. Even when the story starts to let her down with convenient happenstance, Dunne buoys Theodora Goes Wild with pure joy and charisma. Another surprising first time watch at the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival.
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1 comment:

Théo said...

Black Narcissus was shot in England with painted backdrops!