Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2018 - Rami Raff ""

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Film Discoveries of 2018 - Rami Raff

Rami Raff is a film teacher at a Los Angeles private school and film-twitter gadfly/friend of the pod. He can be found on letterboxd (https://letterboxd.com/ramiraff/) where he is the officially-unofficial chronicler of Pure Cinema Podcast episode Lists and on twitter @thesickness85.


Ruggles of Red Gap (1935, Leo McCarey)
Probably the best film discovery I made in 2018, RUGGLES starts with a simple premise and develops into something much deeper and more thoughtful. A proper English valet, Marmaduke Ruggles (a perfect Charles Laughton) is “won” in a poker game by his irresponsible lush of a boss to an ornery, new money, cowboy and brought to America. Being surrounded by a bunch of uncouth western types makes for a lot of great fish-out-of-water comedy but eventually Ruggles' presence transforms his community... and at the same time, his time in America changes him. The dramatic centerpiece of the film, Ruggles reciting the Gettysburg Address word-perfect to a bar full of stunned onlookers, doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house. Being in America changes Ruggles; his own personal emancipation as an immigrant is profoundly powerful and a valuable reminder that America is above all an idea, one that can be good or bad, funny or tragic, but should be for everyone who comes here. McCarey, someone who so ably juggles melodrama with screwball comedy, is ideally suited to direct this unheralded masterpiece of the thirties.
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Night and Fog (1955, Alain Resnais)
When we think of history, especially grim moments in human history, we think of it in black and white. Resnais confounds our expectation by first showing us the concentration camps in color and in ruin. We can hear birds chirping and the wind rustling and the empty space seems impossibly serene. It’s an ingenious piece of filmmaking because it shows us that the greatest human horror ever conceived starts just like everything else. As Resnais chronicles the beginning of the camps, we don’t get dark shadows or ominous music - rather, the narration comments on life in Germany and other parts of Eastern Europe going on normally with people unaware of the horror about to befall them. As the breadth of the horrors of the Holocaust begin to mount, first Jews with stars on their coats in ghettos, then emaciated camp prisoners, then mass graves, there in the back of our mind is that quiet physical space of the camp now, a place not fundamentally different from any other. With a mere half-hour run time, the viewer is walloped with images and juxtapositions as though they’ve been watching a multi-hour documentary. An essential movie for our time where fascism and bigotry are increasingly normalized, NIGHT AND FOG reminds us that these things don’t announce themselves, they happen in the background as we live our everyday life.
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Rockula (1990, Luca Bercovici)
Did I want to have a list with both NIGHT AND FOG and ROCKULA? You bet I did. Brian introduced me to the singular charms of Dean Cameron in SUMMER SCHOOL where Cameron plays a goofball horror film fan. Here he actually does a fairly good job as a hapless virgin turned into a electrifying rock star (and in one unforgettable scene, a rapper), who also happens to be a vampire. It’s not a great movie, it’s not a good movie, but damnit, it is bad in the most interesting possible way. All kinds of strange psychosexual vampire romance (Rockula lives with a very sexually liberated mom-vampire) is juxtaposed with a bizarre rise to fame in the music industry. For a movie that doesn’t really have any understanding of how horror or music, it works. It's FILLED with music stars like Toni Basil, Thomas Dolby (who is surprisingly effective as a Bowie-esque weirdo) and rock legend Bo Diddley (who at one point wears spandex in the aforementioned rap scene). Are you going to like this movie? I don’t know, but would you like to hear a vampire rap about conservative columnist and etymologist William Safire? Because if you do, this is the only place you’re going to find it.
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Get Crazy (1983, Allan Arkush)
Director Arkush is rightly celebrated for the delightfully anarchic ROCK N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL but his lesser known GET CRAZY is an equally rollicking delight. The film feels like a Mad Magazine issue come to life as Arkush, ever the music nerd, fills his stage with clever rip-offs, homages and parodies of the biggest stars of the period. I’m surprised that Lou Reed so willingly left himself be skewered. Off-stage, a bevy of fun character actors (many from the Dante/Corman rep company: Dick Miller, Clint Howard, Paul Bartel and Robert Picardo are all on hand) prank, scheme, swindle and engage in all manner of sex and drug shenanigans. The energy and willingness to try anything for a laugh more than make up for the paper-thin conflict or the obvious romance. A great hang-out movie that you’ll want to return to and wonder how there isn’t a Shout Factory blu-ray of this available.

The Firemen’s Ball (1967, Milos Forman)
I can’t profess to be an expert on Czechslovakian history so I’m sure there are some specific details that went over my head in this razor sharp satire, but luckily human foibles are timeless and know no geographic boundaries. Directed by the late Milos Forman, a series of farcical errors flummox the sleazy and deeply corrupt firemen of a small Czech town as they try to honor the old chief’s retirement. The absolute highlight is a deeply uncomfortable beauty contest which the men intend to use to just ogle pretty girls and it goes spectacularly wrong in ways that would feel right at home in modern-TV cringe comedy like The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm. Forman’s later career saw him directing prestigious studio films (though they, too, weren’t lacking in bite) so it’s refreshing to see him early in his career do something that lays into his characters and the world with such a fierce and unforgiving eye.
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Brute Force (1947, Jules Dassin)
Dassin, an established master in the crime genre, turns his eye to prisoners already within the system as opposed to career criminals operating outside of it. Burt Lancaster makes for an effective anchor for the dramatic proceedings but the margins of this story are filled with equally interesting men who’ve made regrettable decisions. We watch as the film carefully dispatches a series of series of flashbacks to explain how its gang of convicts wound up behind bars. Once we’re deeply invested in the lives of these men, and having pitted them against the sadist chief of security, played by Hume Cronyn, the stage is set for a shockingly large scale prison break. The brutality of the breakout is far more intense and violent then even the most vicious noir of the period and makes the ending unforgettable.
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Phenomena (1985, Dario Argento)
Dario Argento’s horror films are never afraid to tip into the surreal and the bizarre, but I would be hard-pressed to name a film of his as strange as this one. Sure, there is the usual girl in a remote location, the stern headmistress, the bumbling older man who thinks he’s an authority (in this case Donald Pleasance, doesn’t get better than that) the unknown slasher, the excruciatingly long walks through the scariest parts of the aforementioned remote location but where PHENOMENA separates itself is with the bug nuts (literally!) stuff at the margins. There’s the greatest chimpanzee I’ve ever seen on film, psychic insect controlling powers, Morris Shapiro: Attorney at Law, a pool full of maggots, and surely the most upsetting thing I’ve ever seen chained in a dungeon in a horror movie. If the crazier elements of SUSPIRIA (or its remake) have enticed you, you’d be hard pressed to find a better follow-up than this one.
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They Shoot Horses Don’t They (1969, Sydney Pollack)
The auteur driven era of EASY RIDERS starts in July 1969 with the film’s release in American theaters and it frequently encompasses films like HEAD, FIVE EASY PIECES, KING OF MARVIN GARDENS and the subsequent work of the USC film brats. But the informal style, counter-culture aping, rugged, nihilistic view of contemporary Americana on display in those films is also on display in this one. I don’t want to necessarily call They Shoot Horses unheralded - Gig Young won an Oscar for it and it was nominated for nine others. But given its ungainly title and unusual premise, I don’t think it's as well known as its contemporaries. This is a totally devastating film that alternates between melancholy and pitch-black funny moments. Pollack juggles his gallery of desperate losers so that you’re deeply invested in all of them, which makes their defeats all the more painful. After all, it's an elimination contest and there can only be one winner.
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The Hidden (1987, Jack Sholder)
Have you ever watched THE THING or THEY LIVE and thought to yourself “You know, this is pretty good, but what I’d really like is to combine these two movies and put it in the most coke fueled stupid round of Grand Theft Auto ever played?" Yes? Then THE HIDDEN is for you. Directed by genre raconteur Jack Sholder, THE HIDDEN follows an alien criminal that possesses a variety of earth bodies and goes on a crime spree so bloody and excessive that it would make the gang in HEAT blush. The film revels in its 80’s excess and I’m sure everyone can appreciate seeing Kyle McLachlan as a (get ready for it) oddball FBI agent who teams up with a world weary homicide detective to track down the killer.
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The Passionate Friends (1949, David Lean)
I realize at this point this particular film has been frequently mentioned on the site but the fact of the matter is that the dearly departed Filmstruck brought this perfect tiny gem into so many lives makes the entire tragic enterprise worth it. It's remarkable to think that even now we’re still “finding” David Lean masterpieces. I would say that this even surpasses Brief Encounter, a film it shares a lot of elements with beyond just director and then goes further because it does such a specific job in getting us to empathize with the person being betrayed. This is a powerful choice so when things inevitably come undone the full brunt of the emotional damage is even more pointed. I’ve seen so many great Claude Rains performances but I think a genuine argument can be made that this is absolutely his finest hour on-screen. Happy New Years indeed.
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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Absolute second for Ruggles of Red Gap. I had seen it a couple of times over the years but... I hadn't seen it, you know what I mean? I hadn't seen how it's not just an ace comedy but a great movie about the promise of America, about finding your own independence and becoming a free and equal man-- which means, really, it's a great movie about race in America, because if a British servant can do it, why can't a black American one? I agree that it may well be the most underrated movie of the 1930s.