Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2017 - Sean Whiteman ""

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Film Discoveries of 2017 - Sean Whiteman

Sean Whiteman is a writer and filmmaker living in Portland, Oregon. He works at the Hollywood Theatre (Oregon’s only steady hook-up of 70mm presentations). His new horror short (BRAMBLE ON) is premiering at the 41st annual Portland International Film Festival on February 18th. An excerpt from his first novel was recently published on Queen’s Mob Teahouse and his newest feature script is entitled BLUE LIVES SPLATTER (inquire if interested).

Other contributions: Underrated ‘86, Underrated ‘87, Discoveries 2016
Links:, Sean’s Letterboxd, Sean’s twitter

I’d like to take a moment to honor Portland’s power-house video store MOVIE MADNESS. I wouldn’t have been able to find many of these titles if it weren’t for their deep, deep catalog (84,000 titles and counting). The theatre I work for recently finished a wildly successful kickstarter campaign to save the store and fold it into our non-profit. Long live the new flesh! Long live video!

My Twentieth Century (Ildikó Enyedi):

“Matches. Buy matches. Help two orphans.”

Either the original negative had been sprinkled with fairy dust or, perhaps, it was shot on a rare vintage Kodak 35mm sparkle-chrome film stock to begin with. Whatever cine-magic they employed on the technical end, the finished-product left me as a smear of dizzy glee.

The film begins in 1880, in New Jersey, as the onset of electricity and cinema captivates both mankind and the stars above. We then jump to Budapest where two twin girls, orphans, fall asleep in the streets selling matches to strangers (the scene of the two girls sharing the warmth and glow of a single match in a snowstorm is the perfect scene-as-cross-section of the film’s vibrant spirit). Two men find them and, after a decisive coin-flip, each man takes one of the girls in a different direction (while they’re still sleeping). This midnight twin-theft serves as stellar ignition for a plot full of precise comedic exercises. We follow the twin’s lives as they intersect with a variety of different vulgar and misguided masculine forces before ultimately dovetailing back to the same small social circle years later.

Dorata Segda brings writer/director Ildikó Enyedi’s twin storylines to fruition with a vulnerable, ferocious and hilarious performance. Segda deftly switches between the bubbly-as-a-front con-artist sister and the bomb-slinging anarchist in a way that puts the audience at ease (knowing full well wherever the characters might go, they are being led by expert performative instincts).

Enyedi’s story and visual framing works in tandem with Segda’s work to creative an airtight work of slow-drip focus. Creativity and inventiveness find signatures on nearly every scene and the work builds to a beautiful and tender finale that doesn’t betray the joyous spirit it had fostered up until then. The black and white cinematography is full of peculiar tonal-visions and breathtaking moments of soft precision (working to promote feelings of earthly humor and celestial celebration).

I always appreciate a filmmaker who makes excellent use of animal life and this is a star-studded critter ensemble. All manner of animalia parade before us, giving added depth to the unspoken scope of the narrative (a scene of a chimpanzee recalling the moment he was captured makes me think Spike Jonze or Charlie Kaufman may have seen this).

My partner showed me this and she got the tip from attending a screening at Portland’s heroic Church of Film series. Enyedi also has a new Oscar-nominated film playing at PIFF this year! It’s inspiring to know, thirty years later, she’s reaching for that top-shelf.

“It’s New Year’s Eve. I should get drunk at least.”
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Blood Of Heroes (Directed by David Peoples)

“In the league you’re almost one of them...almost. They treat you like one of them. They dress you in special clothing, and silk...a cloth so fine it’s like wind on your cheek.”

The film that spawned the legendary sport of Jugger. This 1989 Rutger Hauer / Joan Chen post-apocalyptic sports epic crammed enough world-building (and sport-building) into its ninety minutes that legions of fans across the globe still recreate it’s mythology and attempt to stake styrofoam dog-skull replicas onto their opponents spikes (real dog skulls in the film). The first international Jugger tournament took place in German in 2007.

The players on a Jugger team:

One Qwik: an unarmed player and the only one that can touch the dog skull (Joan Chen).
One Griffer: a player armed with a chain (Vincent D’Onofrio)
One Drive and one Back Charge: enforcers who can touch the skull with their weapons (Delroy Lindo and Anna Katarina)
One Slash: primary enforcer (Rutger Hauer).

Hauer is a commanding and charismatic as the ex-league champion, now dogtown, player. Joan Chen is appropriately vicious and she strides the playing grounds with feline grace as an eager rookie taken into the fold by a team of vets. Vincent D’Onofrio, Delroy Lindo and Anna Katarina all do wonderful supporting work playing the material in a manner serious enough to make us care but not serious enough to make us laugh.

There’s also a lot of casual sex throughout this movie, indicating that while we may have lost a civilized infrastructure in this dystopian future, we haven’t lost the will to get-down with regularity. I loved the attempted love-scene between Chen and D’Onofrio -- both too scraped and bruised after a bout to perform as well as they’d like to. Rutger comments, as he nonchalantly watches them make their attempt, “I told you...two juggers can’t fuck after the game. Doesn’t work. Unless you like rubbing wounds against wounds.”

Written and directed by David Peoples who previously joined forces with Hauer on BLADE RUNNER (which Peoples scribed). Call me an asshole, but I prefer this Jugger-love to that replicant hate. Maybe it’s the latent sports fan in me. I just know, by the end of this, I knew what it felt like to last 100 stones against the champions of the nine cities.

“I never hurt a soul for any reason but to put a dog skull on a stake...and I never will.”
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Nightwish (Directed by Bruce R. Cook)

“Very nice, Donna. The best so far of all the visualizations. And yet none of you has been able to finish his training. Not one of you is able to project his own death.”

I enjoyed the commitment to dream-tone as a core foundation piece in NIGHTWISH’s creative arsenal. We follow a group of college students who are neck-deep (literally, in sensory-deprivation chambers) in the study of dream-projection. It’s a savvy setup in which to allow nightmare logic to take root naturally.

As much as I respect aspects of INCEPTION, I always get a little frustrated at the clinical precision of Nolan’s beautifully rendered dream-spills. They are stunning, but they don’t remind me of the primal-fuzziness I experience in my own nightwishes. This film depicts a more personally accurate depiction of my personal dark strangeness even if it lacks Nolan’s ambitious structure and scale.

There’s a slight limpness to the pacing that would have been the eye-lid-tugging achilles heel for another less skillful attempt, but the oddball beats and unexpected character turns kept me at half-smirk for the bulk of the runtime despite the somewhat monotone pacing (it’s also hard to fault a dreamy movie for not adhering to typical atmospheric beats).

The memorable moments are truly memorable (and grisly) and there’s a wry quality to the film which kept me thoroughly engaged (especially Brian Thompson’s weirdly-animated Dean and Jack Starrett playing the professor like he was a part-time morgue attendant).

“Cannibalism has always been one of my all-time phobias.”

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Tampopo (Directed by Jûzô Itami)

“I'll kill you if you make that noise once the movie starts!”

I feel slightly guilty calling it a discovery as people had told me, for years that I should make it a priority. My reticence to believe these truth-sayers was primarily a result of me not being a particular fan of ramen. The people who rave about this film seem to unconsciously salivate as they describe the plot/food -- unable to separate their love of the narrative with their love of the noodle in their praise.

I was impressed with the absurdity and nuance in which it changed gears (and genres) at the drop of a hat. The tone was confident, but jagged, with scenes of dramatic melancholy transitioning into moments of absurd visual humor. All the while it managed to celebrate those individuals who choose to be devoted to their passion. I got to catch this one at the Hollywood on 35mm with a truly amped crowd. I still don’t crave ramen, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching the characters savor and plan every bite from the ground to the mouth.

“He sat up, sighed, picked up one slice of pork-as if making a major decision in life-and lightly tapped it on the side of the bowl.”
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Blue City (Directed by Michelle Manning)

“I want some fucking justice around here. Until I get it your life is gonna suck.”

I’ve followed my particular threads of cinema interest until they’ve frayed-out into some unpredictable territory. This is the result of one of those rogue threads.

I found BLUE CITY because I was loitering on Walter Hill’s IMDB page for a couple months and, through the prism of a guy who was in the middle of a deep binge into Hill’s marvelous filmography, this was a wonderful and peculiar diversion. Now, if you aren’t as stoked about seeing movies Walter Hill co-wrote in the 80’s, this one maybe shouldn’t take priority (if you haven’t seen TRESPASS or EXTREME PREJUDICE, I’d start there). This is the directorial debut from the co-producer of THE BREAKFAST CLUB and she brought along Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy for this one too.

Your enjoyment will likely hinge delicately on your body’s innate susceptibility to Nelson’s on-screen presence. I favor it, having been steeped-in his smarm-charm during my formative years. I ended up having a great time seeing the Brat Pack vibe spill over into some lightweight Florida noir. And Nelson truly is a brat in this. He drips with 80’s-era entitlement appropriate for his son-of-a-murdered-mayor-seeking-revenge. He was raised as privileged rich kid and now he wants his privileged rich vigilante justice.

Manning and DP Steven Poster use a lot of long lenses to create the squished-humidity aesthetic of the fictional Florida city the film gets its title from. Walter Hill’s frequent collaborator Ry Cooder scores the movie in a way that makes me think he likes soft boiled eggs more than hard boiled ones.

“Look at this guy! Look at him! It took five hundred years of pure anglo-saxon breeding to produce something this big and stupid.”
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Just Before Dawn (Directed by Jeff Lieberman)

“At least tell me where you’re going, so when you don’t come back I’ll know how to fill out the report.”

For the majority of the runtime I was on-board in an above-average way. I’m typically game for most stalk-and-kill outdoorsy mysteries and this one had ample chops when it came to production and performance value (Gregg Henry and Deborah Benson do wonders creating a genuine tender relationship in their few initial setup scenes). But the film as a whole was still at risk of being blurred into the infinity blood-pool of October films that my house had been marathoning if it weren’t for the way it crossed the finish line.

What made this a discovery was the climactic confrontation. For those who haven’t seen it, I wouldn’t dare spoil the details, but it features one of the more resourceful, primal, and shocking kills to be found in the deep trenches of the horror section. It’s a true WTF all-timer that burnt a camera-obscura nightmare-darkness silhouette onto the exposed neurons of my brain, rendering me near-catatonic by the time the end credits rolled. The scene also played-off insecurities the main character had expressed early in the film, giving the moment extra thematic oomph to match the visceral power of the imagery.

Extra creepy bonus points for being filmed a short drive from where I live (shot in Silver Falls State Park, Oregon). Apparently Jeff Lieberman is a name I should’ve known earlier. Between this and REMOTE CONTROL (another borderline discovery from last year) I’m very impressed with the steady inventiveness on display.

“Where we’re going is no summer camp.”

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Dragonfight (Directed by Warren A. Stevens)

“Drop dead, meat-whacker.”

This one was sniffing around greatness but never quite found it. It lacked in the finesse and articulation of the world it was trying to build (there are more than a few valid reasons it has a 3.2 rating on imdb). But I can’t help but harbor warm feelings for its premise.

Corporations wager massive sums of stocks and other financial mumbo-jumbo (amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars) on a Dragonfight. These fights consist of two corporate gladiators who battle in a designated plot of nature, all the while being surveilled (somehow?) by the men-in-suit board-members of two rival corporations (Michael Pare and James Hong both wear these suits well).

The musical score sounded like it was lifted from an action figure commercial and I was into it. It drove the plot forward when the script finally lost control of the tenuous mythology it was half-heartedly attempting to build (I really do understand the 3.2 rating).

I think it could’ve been a fringe classic if it weren’t hampered by the lead actor’s performance (his attempts at intense handsome brooding come across as indifferent irritation dressed in blue jeans). The fight scenes also largely lack a pulse as the lead doesn’t seem to be a kickboxer in real life or anything (which would’ve been a saving grace for his wooden acting). Robert Z’Dar gets a juicy role as the antagonistic Dragonfigher on the loose.

“He’s sort of flamboyant.”
“What does that mean?”
“He drinks.”

What really makes it a discovery for me was a juicy role for George “Buck” Flower. You know who he is, you may just not know him by name. He’s played a drunk in more movies than he’s played sober (was a Carpenter regular) and he gets to be a central figurehere. His charisma is the cohesive element that kept the film’s momentum from derailing into a ditch. He’s like a more shit-faced Cowboy character from THE BIG LEBOWSKI who decided to stick around for the whole movie and occasionally narrate between beers. Any movie smart enough to appreciate Flower’s unique charisma won’t make you feel stupid for watching it, despite what imdb users tell you.

“Can’t make a man go against his own soul.”
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Body Parts (Directed by Eric Red)

“The questions I've been asking are quite simply beyond my reach. Where does evil live, is evil in the flesh?”

A lot of films rely on the spirit of a serial killer inhabiting different things in order to continue their amoral path (CHILD’S PLAY, SHOCKER, FALLEN, ETC). I liked this one for suggesting the evil wasn’t limited to the mind, heart or spirit but, instead, the evil was imbued into every part of the actual physiological body. That becomes a problem when a heinous killer gets cut-up and divvied to a variety of people in need of immediate organ donation.

Jeff Fahey begins to realize his new arm had done some bad things in the past and maybe isn’t done performing those sort of malevolent motions. Eric Red (frequent Kathryn Bigelow collaborator and dark mind who wrote THE HITCHER) was at the helm and he makes the scientific premise believable enough to ensure the mayhem won’t garner the eye-rolls the logline might suggest. This is one of the more fully realized Fahey performances I’ve watched and I’m no Fahey-featherweight. His tender interplay with his wife and kids ensures the tension will be real when the stakes, and arms, are inevitably raised.

Brad Dourif also receives a limb and gets to commiserate with Fahey about the in-and-outs of limb-possession. Pretty much as soon as Brad Dourif’s name appears in the opening credits of a movie, even one about involuntary physical reactions, my body relaxes knowing there’ll be, at the very least, something to smile about in the next ninety minutes. His performative skillset is robust and further amplified by the relish he seems to bring to every one of his roles. He’s riding a fixie with no brakes and I’ve never seen him wipeout.

“I'd like just to cure one human being; that's all, just one. I'd like to prove once and for all, that you can...shake a shattered mind and put it all back together again.”

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Wedlock A.K.A Deadlock (Directed by Lewis Teague)

“You nonconformists are all alike.”

Another fun genre low-ball with high-ball conceptual foundations. Imagine a superjail without walls and without the need for armed guards. All the prisoners stay within a hundred yards from one another because each is fitted with an explosive collar. Should a prisoner stray from the penitentiary herd, they will have their heads blown off (along with another random prisoner who is paired, without their knowledge, to the first).

It basically means you have a mystery explosive dog collar partner and you don’t know who it is. This is the genius of warden Stephen Tobolowsky’s superjail. You know you’re in good hands when Tobolowsky is involved in your film’s climactic showdown. Mimi Rogers and Rutger figure out they are each other’s partners and they go on the run together, trying not to stray one hundred yards from one another (all the while being tailed by Chen, James Remar and Tobolowsky). This hundred-yard gimmick is perfect fodder for some setpieces clever enough to make Hitchcock’s ghost smirk in muted appreciation.

Rutger Hauer and Joan Chen reunite for another entry on my list and they are both just as committed to this film’s outlandish elements as they were to the ones in BLOOD OF HEROES. Their easy and joyous chemistry in these two movies makes me wish Chen was cast as a fellow replicant in BLADE RUNNER or Hauer had anything to do with TWIN PEAKS.

There’s a moment about two-thirds of the way through when Hauer asks Mimi Rogers what’s wrong. The way Rogers responds “Nothing, just tired.” sounds like “Nothing, just tarrrrrd.” and it’s a truly magnificent line reading. This inflection, this small choice by Rogers, surprises me and fills me with delight.

For a twelve year stretch between 1983 and 1995 Danny Trejo played about a dozen bit-part roles as prisoners in a wide variety of productions (billed as simply as “Prisoner” in MANIAC COP 2 and THE HIDDEN, “Boxer Prisoner” in RUNAWAY TRAIN, “Prison Inmate” in KINJITE: FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS, “Mumbling Prisoner” in JAKE AND THE FATMAN, etc). In WEDLOCK he earns the prestigious distinction of being billed as the “Tough Prisoner #1” (not gonna argue).

“I guess life isn’t for everyone.”
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Rituals (Directed by Peter Carter)

“Yeah, but In this theory, the beginning and the end overlap...and that’s the middle.”

Five doctors, and buddies, go into the Canadian wilderness for their annual friendship-bonding trip and inadvertently end-up in a horror movie. The choice to make the terrorized group a gaggle of grizzled, bitter, doctors was a mini-masterstroke. The degree of terror feels more severe than your typical “teens lost in the woods” version of the same dread. When the men who are trained to know how to stitch-up our anatomy begin to flail and fall apart at the seems the dread seeps past the superficial and makes humanity feel cosmically inept to handle the rigors of existence.

We are embedded with Hal Holbrook and the doctors, only learning what little they learn about the threat that menaces them. We don’t get an extended back-story or a round-the-campfire oratory framing device. It’s a tortoise creeper, slowing your heart-rate down as it makes steady progress toward it’s grim and enigmatic finish-line.

They save the real knock-ya-socks-off cinematography for the last third when those who are still alive spin-out in a spiral of physical and psychological exhaustion set against majestic Canadian scenery. This is the sort of movie that will make you believe there’s an animal head on a stake around every corner and a bear-trap in every river-bed.

“The point is either self-evident or there isn’t any.“

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Lower Level (Directed by Kristine Peterson)

“You know where more people pray to god than anywhere else in the world, including Mecca? Vegas.”

Kristine Peterson brings a wealth of top-shelf theatrical control and flair to this direct-to-video thriller. Between LOWER LEVEL and DEADLY DREAMS, I’ve come to admire her ability to play-up a given script’s potential despite being hampered by low budgets. She’s also a hidden genre darling having directed the fifth installment of the KICKBOXER series, launching the BODY CHEMISTRY saga, and introducing cinema to Leonardo DiCaprio in CRITTERS 3. As an assistant director she lent her expertise to CHOPPING MALL, MAID TO ORDER, TREMORS and BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE.

Elizabeth Gracen is charismatic and effectively resilient in her portrayal of the object of a twisted security guard’s desires. She’s the architect of the very building she’s being stalked in and that perverse element helped stitch together the emotional power struggle story with the more raw moments action and carnage.

Wally Pfister deserves praise for his innovative uses of the grey landscape of a parking garage. His cinematography helped amplify the twists as they careened into turns. The eventual fate of our psycho, and the way it’s photographed, is one such inspired flourish that left me grinning more than most of this film’s snooty direct-to-cinema thriller counterparts.

“We’re locked in here, there’s nowhere we can have an oyster.”
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