Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2020 - Jonathan Hertzberg ""

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Film Discoveries of 2020 - Jonathan Hertzberg

Jonathan Hertzberg is a longtime friend of Rupert Pupkin Speaks and runs the Fun City Editions Blu-ray Label. Check it out here:

Check out his other Discovery Lists:

Get Rollin' (1980, Terrence Mitchell)
Terrence Mitchell's rousing and humorous documentary about two Brooklyn roller disco kings is almost certainly at least partially "scripted reality." But, that's not a knock. This is an entertaining and by no means frivolous look at a long-vanished subculture, as well as a long-vanished New York City. It's also impossible not to look at it with a little wistfulness and sadness for the obsolescence of this culture--both roller disco and disco music itself--and this version of the city that we know soon followed. The film itself has disappeared from the market, almost certainly due to its soundtrack that is chockablock with heavy disco bangers.

Melanie (1982, Rex Bromfield) 
Fun City Editions and Danny Peary favorite Glynnis O'Connor still flies under the radar and it doesn't help that one of her major feature film gigs--the title role in Melanie--has been out of circulation for nearly 40 years. This Canadian production (Glynnis won the Genie for Best Foreign Actress) mostly takes place in L.A. where the illiterate Melanie goes in search of her young son, who has been taken there by her estranged husband (Don Johnson in perhaps his scuzziest and most villainous part). There, Melanie meets struggling songwriter Carl (Burton Cummings of the Guess Who) and his lawyer Paul Sorvino, both of whom help her get on her feet. This is O'Connor's show and she pulls off a very tricky part...I think it should have led to more big-screen opportunities for her as an adult, but subsequent roles were mainly in television films.

Drying Up the Streets (1978, Robin Spry) 
This hard-hitting Canadian telefilm is harder than anything seen at the time on U.S. network television--and, in fact, just about any Hollywood film--and its plot, while sharing much with the storyline of Paul Schrader's Hardcore, actually beat the American film to the screen by a year. Veteran Canadian character actor Don Francks fully inhabits his role as a former radical professor turned junkie, who is loosed onto the Toronto streets by a cop (Len Cariou) to help bust up a drug ring, while also searching for his own teenage daughter who has tragically fallen into the life. Sarah Torgov (Meatballs) is unforgettable as a painfully young runaway who has fallen into the clutches of the aforementioned mob. 

Claudine (1974, John Berry)
The remarkable Diahann Carroll--stepping into the formidable shoes of the tragic Diana Sands--is absolutely radiant in the title role. She's a single mother struggling mightily to keep a roof over herself and her six children in Harlem when she meets and falls for Roop (a most magnetic and charming James Earl Jones). Various circumstances, not the least of which is a badly flawed and unforgiving welfare system, threaten to keep them apart. Over 45 years later, this film stands out for its portrayal of everyday, working-class Black characters who are not criminals and do not fall into cheap stereotypes. I finally saw this via a mediocre rip of the long OOP DVD and not much later it was announced as a new Criterion Blu-ray. I look forward to viewing it in that vastly improved version, along with the included supplemental features.

Threshold (1981, Richard Pearce) 
Here's another once-acclaimed film that's really been forgotten, even though it boasts a great performance by one of our greatest actors, Donald Sutherland. Here, he's a top heart surgeon on the cusp of medical history after he connects with an ambitious young research scientist developing an artificial heart (Jeff Goldblum, perfecting the "Goldblum" schtick we all know and love today). This is a Canadian production and its attention to detail is uber-authentic and the whole thing remains refreshingly unsentimental, which is not at all to say that it lacks emotional oomph and payoff. The consistently excellent and underrated Mare Winningham is so good here as a young heart patient, perhaps Sutherland's most challenging case.

Who Am I This Time (1982, Jonathan Demme) 
Short and oh so sweet, this American Playhouse short produced for PBS is based on a Kurt Vonnegut story about a small-town community theater company, whose best actor is a very shy, introverted hardware store worker (Christopher Walken). Susan Sarandon, as an itinerant telephone company worker passing through town, is equally lonely, but, like Walken, also willing to throw herself into the latest production, A Streetcar Named Desire. The two leads are that very best here. Demme manages to beautifully capture the rhythms and charms of this mid-century, midwestern burg in spite of the abbreviated running time. The late Robert Ridgely, a Demme regular, is wonderful as the producer of the show.

Freedom (1981, Joseph Sargent) 
Barbara Turner (mother of Jennifer Jason Leigh) based this TV-movie screenplay on her experiences raising and sparring with wayward daughter Carrie, who left home as a teenager to work with a traveling carnival. Jennifer Warren (so good in Night Moves) is equally fine in the Turner role and a very young Mare Winningham (a childhood friend of JJL and Carrie) plays the rebellious teenager. This is a small-scale, human drama with smart, topical writing that embodies what television films could be at their best. The unglamorous carnival life is vividly portrayed, with familiar faces like Peter Horton, Eloy Casados and Taylor Negron playing part of the tight-knit group of carnies, which, while not as nefarious as the cults that were so prevalent at the time, has some similarities. One can see how the disaffected daughter could have just as easily been sucked into one of those religious cults. Horton would appear the next year as a member of Peter Fonda's Unification Church-like cult in Split Image.

All Night Long (1981, Jean-Claude Tramont) 
Writer W.D. Richter trashes this movie on the accompanying interview on the Blu-ray, but the film is far better than he gives it credit for, even if it materialized differently than originally envisioned. Gene Hackman is his usual, seemingly effortlessly good self as a corporate hack for a chain of all-night drug stores. In the opening scene, he has a breakdown in his office and is kicked down to a position as a night manager at one of the company's rougher outposts. As part of remaking himself, he has an affair with the similarly stifled wife of one of his wife's relatives. Originally starring opposite Hackman was the up-and-coming Lisa Eichhorn (fresh from Cutter's Way), but she was fired as part of a power-play between Hackman, director Tramont and his wife, super-agent Sue Mengers, who brought in her star client Barbra Streisand to replace Eichhorn. In spite of this behind-the-scenes discord, I was thoroughly charmed by this quirky, left-of-center dramedy, which pre-dates by several years a number of well-known films that mine similar topics--Lost in America, Something Wild, After Hours and so forth--and is also reminiscent of the earlier Petulia.

The Missouri Breaks (1976, Arthur Penn) 
Despite boasting two of the finest actors on the planet at the height of their powers, in Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson the resulting film has a reputation as a bloated misfire for all. I guess that's why it took me so long to see it; it's long, yes, and there's the expected scenery-chewing by Brando and Nicholson, but I was engaged and laughing throughout. The humor in Tom McGuane's screenplay is often rather dry and acidic and mean, which is my preferred blend, I think. That humor and the plot share some similarities with the previous year's Rancho Deluxe, also written by McGuane. Another great asset here is the score by John Williams, which is smaller in scope and more whimsical than the grand scores he is much better known for.

Hard Country (1981, David Greene) 
This is akin to an English kitchen sink drama transplanted to Texas, not surprising considering veteran helmer Greene is a Brit who came up during the age of Look Back in Anger and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. This is also very much a post-Saturday Night Fever and Urban Cowboy film, with main characters Jan-Michael Vincent and Kim Basinger spending a lot of time at a big honky tonk bar that's quite reminiscent of Gilley's. The surprise and the twist here is that this film is really the girl's and Basinger shines as a young woman looking to bust out of the small-town confines with or without her less ambitious, small-minded beau. With a seedy mustache, greasy hair and a thinner physique than usual, Vincent looks rough, and he should be commended for dispensing with vanity, whether it was entirely for the role or due, in part, to his well-known substance issues.

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