Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2018 - J. Blake (Scored to Death) ""

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Film Discoveries of 2018 - J. Blake (Scored to Death)

J. Blake is the author of the film music-themed book, Scored to Death: Conversations with Some of Horror’s Composers, and its upcoming sequel—coming in 2020. As a freelance writer, he has written liner notes for vinyl LP releases, and has contributed to such notable publications and websites as Video Watchdog magazine, Rue Morgue magazine, MovieMaker magazine, [the original] and He is the cohost of the popular film podcast Saturday Night Movie Sleepovers, as well as the host of the film music podcasts Scored to Death: The Podcast and The Damn Fine Network’s Cuts from the Crypt.

When I was asked to contribute an article to Rupert Pupkin Speaks, I was of course honored, but sadly this has been an extremely slow year for me, “film discovery-wise.” Due to all of the work that I put into my podcasts and freelance writing assignments—which are mostly nostalgic in nature—finding time to watch older titles that I haven’t seen before, while trying to keep up with current releases, is not easy. However, I am pleased to say that a handful of seldom mentioned gems still managed to cross my path this year.

LIFEGUARD (1976; Daniel Petrie)
I need to be completely honest, as I get older I seem to be losing track of time more and more. So I actually don’t remember if I saw this film earlier this year or sometime last year. Regardless, I caught this one late one night while flipping through the digital antenna channels on my non-cable equipped bedroom TV. Sam Elliott plays Rick, an aging California lifeguard (in his thirties) at a personal crossroads. He has grown complacent as a “big fish in a small pond.” He loves the beach, he is good at what he does, he is respected, looked up to, and up until now has been comfortable living a life without worrying about societal expectations. But all that changes when he attends his high school reunion, and rekindles a romance with an old flame (Anne Archer). She is a divorcee raising a child and Rick is now faced with a decision; does he continue with his carefree—fun in the sun—lifestyle, or give it up for the possibility of something more meaningful, mature and stable? All this while dealing with a (non-politically correct) B-storyline which finds Rick trying not to hurt a lonely teenage girl with whom he has started a misguided sexual relationship—played by Kathleen Quinlan.

Now that I am approaching (or even already in…depending on your point of view) middle age, I find myself drawn to these, “people who have, arguably, not lived up to their potential and are at a crossroads” narratives. Lifeguard is no Rocky (also from 1976), but it is an engaging story with a non-preachy/non-judgmental tone that is perfect for an old fart, who is also going through a bit of a mid-life crisis, like me.

FALLING IN LOVE (1984; Ulu Grosbard)
This is another one that I randomly caught on television. It has commercials, and I missed about the first thirty-minutes. So I did a quick search, found that it was available on Amazon Prime Video, and started it over from the beginning—commercial free.

Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep play people unfulfilled in their marriages and family lives, who find themselves brought together by fate, and unexpectedly thrust into a sweet-yet-adulterous romance. It is a love story—clich├ęd, derivative, melodramatic, poignant at times, bittersweet at others, and kind of perfect…for me anyway. It is another film where my reaction is likely swayed by my age. Plus, I am also a sucker for films about relationships formed outside of one’s “everyday life;” whether they be friendships, romances or fleeting chance encounters that make a lasting impression. This film scratches that itch for me, while speaking directly to my inner-romantic.

TAKE A HARD RIDE (1975; Antonio Margheriti)
The Spaghetti Western meets Blaxploitation!

Moments before a cattle rancher (Dana Andrews) dies, he entrusts his right-hand man, Pike (Jim Brown), with a mission to deliver $86,000 across the border to their ranch in Mexico. Pike reluctantly teams up with a charming-yet-dishonest gambler played by Fred Williamson, and together they make their way through the treacherous Old West to carry out their mission. As one would expect, they eventually come across a damsel in distress (Catherine Spaak) and are pursued by an assortment of outlaws and gun-wielding Western-movie-stereotypes; including a cold-blooded bounty hunter played (wonderfully) by a long-haired Lee Van Cleef.

As I watched this highly entertaining example of exploitation cinema, I longed for just one thing, “the martial arts stylings of the great Jim Kelly.” And as if I were the proprietor of a mystical genie’s lamp, Jim Kelly magically appeared…as a mute, ass-kicking “Indian” scout named Kashtok. The film’s score is also worth noting. Composed by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith, it masterfully conjures up feelings of both the Leone/Morricone-inspired Spaghetti Western and its classic Hollywood precursors.

I watched this film earlier this year, in preparation for an interview with composer John Massari for Scored to Death: The Podcast. Coincidentally, John just recently, and successfully, completed a crowdfunding campaign to bring this score to vinyl for the first time. As for the film itself? It kinda blew my mind and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it before.

It is based on a short film by the same name, which in 1979 was, in part, used in a The Wonderful World of Disney TV special titled, “Major Effects” to help promote the studio’s special effects opus, The Black Hole. Allegedly, the short film became a cult classic when the TV special was screened for audiences at various Science-Fiction Conventions; which then prompted filmmaker Mike Jittlov to expand it into a feature.

Made in 1983 (but not released until 1989), the feature film stars Mike Jittlov as himself, in a semi-autobiographical narrative about a talented and ambitious, yet naive, special effects “wizard”/independent filmmaker who is struggling to make his dream of making a film come true, amid a selfish, corrupt and unionized film industry--which as I understand it, was a direct reaction to Jittlov’s negative experiences working with Disney. The film is a practical effects marvel, with an exaggerated and cartoonish tone that can only be compared to something like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, which was made two years later. And even that comparison is not entirely accurate.

The Wizard of Speed and Time is a marvelous spectacle of filmmaking ingenuity, which beautifully captures the wonder of movie magic during the pre-CGI golden age of practical effects filmmaking. Its early-80s cartoon-like sensibilities filled me with nostalgia, and as if by wizardry, speedily whisked me back through time to my childhood, when kid-programming was weird, often bizarre and totally amazing.

THE WIZARD (1989; Todd Holland)
Rain Man (1988) meets Nintendo Commercial…starring kids. This film was released for Christmas of 1989. I was 11 years old, and of course I knew about—heck this was what introduced my generation to both the Power Glove and Super Mario Bros. 3!—but somehow this gem escaped me for almost 30 years. I missed it in 1989, and then just never got around to watching it. Produced by Nintendo, The Wizard features a soundtrack that is heavy on The New Kids on the Block and BoDeans, and a cast which includes Fred Savage, Beau Bridges, Christian Slater and a young Tobey Maguire—in his first onscreen role, as a featured extra.

I’m not going to lie. The film is not great…it may not even be good. The acting performances are not exactly stellar, and some viewers may find it a bit too difficult to suspend their disbelief enough to accept some of the more ludicrous elements of the plot, but it does certainly play to the nostalgia-lover in me. My podcast, Saturday Night Movie Sleepovers, is all about celebrating the movies we’re nostalgic for—flaws and all. And in that spirit, I thoroughly enjoyed this flick. We have not covered it on SNMS yet, but I have feeling we may now. LOL. I didn’t grow up with The Wizard, but it is such a time capsule of my childhood, that it is impossible for it not to warm my heart…at least a little bit. Plus, it also doesn’t hurt that I tend to like “road movies,” which this most definitely is.

HEROES (1977; Jeremy Kagan)
And speaking of road movies, I will leave you with one more…as a bonus.

At the height of Fonzie-mania, Henry Winkler turned in a Golden Globe & BAFTA-nominated performance in an offbeat little ‘dramadey,’ which reportedly hit number one at the box office on its opening weekend. Winkler plays a troubled Vietnam veteran who escapes a New York City mental ward with the goal of making it cross-country, to California, to start a worm farming business with a few fellow veterans from his former military unit. Along the way he finds a traveling companion and love interest in a woman [Sally Field], who has hit the road in an effort to stall her wedding. The film also features Harrison Ford’s first post-Star Wars screen performance, a dated-but-fun musical score by Jack Nitzsche and Richard Hazard, a well-acted dramatic ending and Kansas’ “Carry On My Wayward Son” rocking over the end credits.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed it, it is a film that may not be for everyone. It is not entirely successful, but manages to get it right enough of the time to make it worth a watch. Field is charming as always, Winkler overdoes it at times, but reins it in nicely for the dramatic scenes, and Ford delivers a memorable performance that is much more akin to his turn as Bob Falfa (in American Graffiti) than Han Solo or Indiana Jones.

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