Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2017 - Rami Raff ""

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Film Discoveries of 2017 - Rami Raff

Rami Raff teaches filmmaking and film studies at a prominent private school in Los Angeles. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Film Studies from Columbia University and worked in the development office at Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Productions. You can follow his obsessive journey through film on his Letterboxd page and on Twitter - @thesickness85. He is indebted to Rupert Pupkin, this site, and the Pure Cinema Podcast for a never-ending bounty of recommendations.

Putney Swope (1969, Dir. Robert Downey Sr.)
Even watching this film feels like a revolutionary act. A fusion of subversive sketch and radical satire, Putney Swope follows the chaos that ensues when an African American Revolutionary is installed as the new CEO of an advertising agency. After a series of razor-sharp attacks on capitalism and a lot of other flimsy American ideals through very funny commercial parodies, the whole thing ends with spectacular destruction. Progressive for its time, I don't know how some of the jokes would play to more "woke" audiences now, but the discussion of racial liberation, economic inequality and how the two are intertwined sure feels awfully timely.
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The Gang's All Here (1943, Dir. Busby Berkley)
The thing that separates the best movie musicals from merely recording a stage production is how the camera and editing take advantage of space and time. The opening of The Gang's All Here is breathtaking, because while ostensibly taking place in a night club, what we're seeing could only logistically be put on in a football stadium. The scale of the performance is immense, as a seemingly infinite chorus sings and dances and turns into a kaleidoscope of extraordinary imagery that can only be captured on film. It's invigorating to watch; Berkley throws out brilliant, purely visual ideas over and over again. The plot is fairly threadbare - some boy-meets-girl, some farce and mistaken identity, and then getting everyone together to put on a show - but everything that inhabits the space of that plot is such glorious spectacle that you don't mind the cliches.
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Spider Baby (1967, Dir. Jack Hill) 
There are cult films and then there are CULT FILMS. Experiences that play best at midnight, that don't simply contain genre elements but are made to appeal to a fringe audience eager for taboo, prurient interests, and mind-expanding psychadelica. Spider Baby fits comfortably into this category along the likes of Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill, Holy Mountain, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and its ilk. A group of straitlaced potential buyers stay in a house where the current inhabitants have degenerated into childlike psychosis after generations of inbreeding. It's a warped, startlingly descent into madness and depravity. At the center of it all is Lon Chaney Jr., who brings shocking gravitas and empathy as the tortured caretaker of these oddball maniac children. Not quite a proto-Texas Chainsaw but in a similar neighborhood, it's an unforgettable experience whether you see it as a dark comedy, thriller, character piece or outright horror.
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The Whole Town's Talking (1935, Dir. John Ford) 
Director John Ford will always be revered for his westerns, but the man made so many films across a variety of genres. The Whole Town's Talking is such a vital illustration of what animates the idea of America; the free press, advancement through capitalism, the desire for celebrity, and a lot more gets probed in this crime caper. Edward G. Robinson, playing brilliantly against type, is a meek office worker who is transformed when it is revealed he is an exact double for a crime boss on the run (also Robinson, firmly back in his wheelhouse). The film is never coy about how hokey this premise looks and by the end of the first act there is a genuine attempt to make sure there are no farcical attempts to mix up the two men. This in turn pushes the story in different, unexpected directions where Robinson's office work finds himself transformed and made better by the fact that he can exist as another person. It's a funny, frenetic bit of screwball comedy that is constantly finding new arenas to play in. Jean Arthur equally matches Robinson as a force of nature Gal Friday-type co-worker.
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Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979, Dir. Werner Herzog) 
Nowadays, anyone can remake a marginal hit so that a studio can capitalize on the name recognition of a property, but it takes a special kind of Teutonic madness to remake one of the cornerstones of the silent era. Herzog gleefully shows that he doesn't believe in any kind of sacred cows with regard to the Murnau original. He is much more interested in taking a well-known classic, keeping the iconography, and abandoning virtually everything else. He frames a parting of the lovers with a giant horses' behind dominating most of the space. Herzog is also attracted to the idea of decay and disease at thee heart of the vampire metaphor. Klaus Kinski as Count Orlock frequently feels like a deeply disease-ravaged man as much as he feels like a typical movie monster. Lest we have any doubts about the film's obsession with decay, Herzog just keeps adding rats as the European cities hounded by the count drown in pestilence. This film intriguingly mirrors the conclusion of Aguirre: Wrath of God, where the foible of humanity is surrounded by the indifference of a giant swarm of animals.
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