Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2017 - Roger Leatherwood ""

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Film Discoveries of 2017 - Roger Leatherwood

Roger Leatherwood studied Moving Image Archiving at UCLA and currently works in the UCLA library. He occasionally writes about film culture, like everyone else in the world, on his blog, Mondo Cine (
On twitter @RogerLB.

As more and more lost gems (and not so gems) get released on Blu-ray, I find my viewing time divided between revisiting films I hadn't seen in decades (Miracle Mile, Into The Night) and finally catching up with films I missed the first time. It's a great time to be a fan of non-mainstream cinema. --Roger

Uptight (Jules Dassin, 1968)
Jules Dassin returned to America in the 70s (after a stint as an ex-patriot after being blacklisted) to film this Chicago-set remake of John Ford's 1935 The Informer. Both films follow a man who betrays his own people in the midst of class warfare, but while Ford's original was set around the Irish War of Independence, Dassin tapped into the black power movement. And it's not a celebration of unity.

At age 56, Dassin still had an eye for noir and the dark side of human experience. And late-'60s Cleveland is beautifully captured. A surreal sequence in an arcade with neon lights and fun-house mirrors is astounding.

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)
After the double-whammy in 2016 of Paterson and Gimme Danger, I realized I'd ignored, perhaps intentionally (Coffee and Cigarettes, anyone?), Jim Jarmusch for a while. I'm almost positive I'll love Only Lovers Left Alive (still haven't seen, possibly on next year's discovery list) but was more intrigued by The Limits of Control, a zen crime joint which no one seemed to like or even remember.

Featuring Isaach De Bankolé as a hitman in Madrid laconic to the point of absurdity, the film does everything a good Jarmusch film does, perhaps to excess. He walks, he drinks tea, he choses not to bed Tilda Swinton when offered. Demonstrating more attitude than plot, its zen minimalism spools by in beautiful, sterile images, creating a mysterious and frustrating landscape of crime-movie tropes that Jarmusch seems uninterested in expanding on beyond signifying its own hyper-cool vibe. That "excess" of nothingness seems to be the point. I loved it.
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You're Telling Me (Erle C. Kenton, 1934)
I finally got into the "other" films in the W.C. Comedy Collection Vol. 2 box set. Fields generally had two characters that shaped the films he was featured in: the larcenous carnival barker on the lam from the law (Poppy, You Can't Cheat An Honest Man, The Old-Fashioned Way), and the hen-pecked husband character who loved his family (or at least, his daughter) but suffered endless indignities (It's A Gift, The Bank Dick, The Man on the Flying Trapeze).

You're Telling Me is of the later style, a study of domestic frustration where he plays an inventor of crackpot schemes, his latest being a puncture proof car tire. Though practically unknown to me, this film displays all the Fieldsian charm, verbal wit and loose but hilarious set-pieces of his later, better known films. It also recreates his famous golf routine from vaudeville once again.
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Landmine Goes Click (Levan Bakhia, 2015)
This title was lurking on the best-of-year horror lists a couple years back and its title seemed little more than a one-joke idea. Yes, a character accidentally steps on a landmine that goes "click" early on, but its much more than a simple man-in-the-wilderness survival tale.

Levan Bakhia's Georgian (as in former Soviet Union) thriller puts a handful of clueless American tourists in jeopardy, not just from forgotten war materiel, but from locals who don't have the purest of motives, and from each other. The film builds in tension to end with a surprisingly tense and violent revenge sequence. From little things come the horror of unintended consequences.
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Diary of a Mad Housewife (Frank Perry, 1970)
Shown in 35mm at the New Beverly in Los Angeles this year during a Frank Perry retrospective, I was stunned by how modern and engaging this early feminist film based on Sue Kaufman's best-selling novel still was.

Typical in a wave of housewife-in-quiet-desperation films and books that felt daring at the time to simply suggest upper-middle class domestic life wasn't all it was cracked up to be, Diary transcends with a powerful spot-on performance by Carrie Snodgrass. It also benefits, I'm convinced, mightily from Perry's wife Eleanor's insightful adaptation of the book. He never made a better film once he broke up, personally and professionally, with her.
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Il Bidone (Federico Fellini, 1955)
One of the most enjoyable film projects I mounted this year was revisiting all of Fellini's films in order, finally getting a grasp on his development of themes and style. Also filling in the gaps. While it's no problem watching 8 1/2 again, I almost dreaded seeing the more serious, early neo-realist films.

Il Bidone (The Swindle) was generally considered a failure upon its release, cynical and anti-human coming on the heals of La Strada. But Fellini's fondness for questionable characters, his endless fascination with city values encroaching on some idealized rural "paradise," and his sober sentimentality are in full display as much as in any other film. Broderick Crawford is perfect as the dead-eyed, tragic swindler who can't stand to disappoint his daughter, and the ending achieves the same kind of grace, dirt-smudged as it is, as Zampano finds in La Strada.
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The Hot Nights of Linda (Jess Franco, 1975)
If Jess Franco was such a bad director, why do they keep remastering his films for blu-ray? That doesn't mean I'm going to watch all HIS films. I've seen more than I should probably admit, and have a fondness for his rambling, sexually and aesthetically transgressive (meaning, they're not always coherent) films from the early to mid '70s when he worked for Robert Nesle and Golden Harvest. Also, naked Lina Romay.

The Hot Nights of Linda, released last year by Severin, is the perfect example of the Sadean family dramas Franco's so fond of, with a horny, probably insane woman at the center. But what makes this one a surreal masterpiece is its narrative (il)logic. Linda starts as a tale of an outsider (Alice Arno) visiting a mansion, then drifts, like a half-drunk uncle, into weird investigations of dark sexual secrets of the inhabitants, with occasionally strikingly gorgeous images, an eye for using architecture in his compositions, and an obsessive love of lingering over naked bodies. I'm not sure it's a depiction of a waking dream or a sexual nightmare.
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