Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2020 - Sean Whiteman ""

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Film Discoveries of 2020 - Sean Whiteman

Sean Whiteman is a writer/filmmaker living in Portland, Oregon. His most recent shot-on-VHS short, BRAMBLE ON, played the Portland International Film Festival and the Portland Underground Film Festival. During non-pandemic times he works at Portland’s historic Hollywood Theatre.

Instagram: @VHS_Basement_Tapes
Twitter and Letterboxd: @seanwhiteman

Sean’s other lists:
Underrated ‘86
Underrated ‘87
Underrated ‘88
Underrated ‘89
Discoveries of 2016
Discoveries of 2017
Discoveries of 2018

“So, the little old man took off Toby’s head to stop him from barking. Then little dog Toby could not bark anymore.”

Don’t get between a young girl and her rabbit! This exists in THE REFLECTING SKIN / PAPERHOUSE realm of imagination-gone-wild movies where a child’s fears/anxieties/dreams start to venture outside of the cranium and into the realm of glorious visual technihorror. It’s a slow burn movie that sets the whole fucking house on fire by the end. I didn’t realize Australians were so afraid of rabbits and communism in the 1950’s.

STREET OF NO RETURN (Dir: Samuel Fuller)
“I’m just gonna change your voice a little.”

Really surprised this one doesn’t have a more vocal following. It’s a demented hail mary hallelluyah heave of ideas and yet somehow it connects for another Samuel Fuller touchdown. Full disclaimer: I’m the only person I’ve ever talked to who feels this way though. It has the gnarly twisted “wouldn’t it be wild if…” energy of classic Fuller, only it’s coming at the tail end of the 80’s when people had definitely taken a minute or two away from employing his specific type of rigorous cinematic strangeness. What you may call sloppy or unfinished I would call fuck yeah and holy shit. Fuller had so much fire in his belly until the very end. Keith Carradine's disgraced former singer turned noir-hobo drinks from two shattered booze bottles, each time not minding the glass that goes down with the booze. Bill Duke's eyes burn down any scene he's in. This movie rips (throat).

“The press is gonna soak this up like a buffalo shitting golden nickels.”

Doing more Ferd and Bev Sebastian (GATOR BAIT) independent study and finally came across these two sparklers. DELTA FOX is primarily delightful in that you get to see Richard Lynch drive the hero-car rather than the villain-mobile for once and Craig R. Baxley (director of ACTION JACKSON and STONE COLD) was on stunt duties. His flair shines through in a couple that-looks-more-reckless-than-it-should moments.

AMERICAN ANGELS is a sweaty slice of wrestlesploitation that has an athletic pulse and an active (if not always accurate) funny bone. The opening scene is more than worth the watch. It is an operatic slow mo spectacle of wrestle-boobs and wrestle-butts and it made my mind drift to similar visual precision in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. 

STAR CRYSTAL (Dir: Lance Lindsay)
“We’re the first guys to play football on Mars...ever.”

If a film has a musical score that taps into your nervous system in any way the potential clunk of a somewhat cheap production all of a sudden feels like it shimmers with homemade charm and the wooden and chaotic acting styles might end up feeling surprising and strong as oak. Such is the case with STAR CRYSTAL.

The music drifts between synthy Carpenter knock-off moods and late-night jazzy-sexy Skinemax flavors (with just a dash of some pretty blatant PSYCHO-inspired musical theft). It helps to watch this one with a friend as its unfinished and abrasive quality vacillates between intentional and unintentional humor in a way that is more appreciated within jovial chuckle chambers. I would love to see this movie (or any fucking movie, at this point) with an audience to fully appreciate the reactionary joy of these performances and the charming homespun visual FX. There’s also a real tender resolution that U-turns toward schmaltzy E.T. territory after living in the hostile ALIEN zone for most of the runtime.

LISA (Dir: Gary Sherman)
“No, you call him.”
“No way, Lisa. C’mon, I mean, you sound just like your mom. I sound like a kid.”

I love this mischievous teen versus pre-Bateman AMERICAN PSYCHO-type killer movie. As I continue my march through Gary Sherman’s filmography I am continually impressed with the range of tensions he manages to manipulate. He was a magician with his visual effects trickery on POLTERGEIST III and he made his scariest movie of all while working outside the horror genre with VICE SQUAD (Ramrod would give Pinhead shivers). With LISA he manages to make a YA thriller that feels Hitchcocky and assured with its terror elements.

I grew up with Staci Keanan’s work in sitcoms (MY TWO DADS and STEP BY STEP) and I was very impressed with how she managed to handle childhood danger-trouble sexy-flirting, the familial warmth with her mom, the friendship comradery and the scream queen physicality the role ends up requiring by the end. It made me wish there were more movies where she got to play the title. After being somewhat deadened to the routine mechanisms of these sort of cat-and-mouse thrillers I was impressed with how worried I was during the finale as it was making me squirm with tension-glee.

“Can I take you some place?”
“Yes. Can you take me to great evil?”

A naked beefcake alien arrives on earth for a Peace Corps-like mission he is sent on from his robes-n-beards utopian planet and, like some kind of anti-terminator, he immediately befriends a homeless man who would’ve been a punch-line wino in a less sensitive film. And this is a sensitive film. The alien “warrior” is named Buddy and he is definitely more of a space-Jesus than a space-devil. It’s the type of movie where the would-be mugger/rapist character from the opening alley-fight-to-prove-toughness scene becomes a redemption arc rather than a casualty of their own poor decisions. The same alley thug character has a therapeutic breakthrough within a minute of sitting down with Buddy and bawls his eyes out about his teachers and parents ridiculing him from birth, leading to an emotional aggression that has snowballed into his current state of villainy. Buddy ends up helping this would-be criminal learn how to read by the time the end credits rolled -- VIOLENT THERAPY or EAGLE SCOUT ALIEN would be good A.K.A.s for this title.

For 1986, an era when every mugger usually got DEATH WISH’d to death rather than given a shot at a second chance, this felt ahead of the curve even if the tone of the movie ends up feeling preachy (and, truthfully, kind of lame) as a result of this do-good propensity. It’s a gnarly kind of lame though, like an afternoon special airing after midnight to accommodate the nudity and violence that offers Buddy sin to react against within the narrative.

It’s from Ed hunt who also directed the rad killer-kid opus BLOODY BIRTHDAY and the truly excellent THE BRAIN.

“I like living in a motel. Maid comes in, cleans up, I get to make a fresh mess everyday.”

I watched both STEPFORD WIVES movies for the first time and this is the one that made my year’s list. The first entry earned its reputation as a grim satire of American aspirations while showcasing a female friendship between the two leading women that sparkled with charismatic chemistry (Katharine Ross and Paula Prentiss).

The made-for-TV sequel with Sharon Gless, Julie Kavner and Don Johnson feels very much a sequel in tone, even if some of the literal character mechanics have been changed. The friendship between Gless and Kavner is hilarious, feels lived-in, and, like the first film, it provides the central pull of the drama. They are beautiful and wonderful to one another and their resolutions are much less fraught than a lot of what happens in the first film which makes it easier to sit with afterward.

The scene where Kavner has a few drinks (against the creepy Stepford doctor’s advice) is worth the price of admission alone. It deserves acclaim far and wide and a lifetime achievement award (or two). One of the most riveting scenes of the year.

A VERY BRADY SEQUEL (Dir: Arlene Sanford)
“Kids are like little people, only younger.”

This was one of those I-thought-I-saw-it-but-turns-out-I-didn’t surprises. It must’ve got muddled with the first one. I like them both a great deal but this one stands out by leaning into the strangeness the first one established (at one point Alice walks into the fridge, only to emerge the next morning). I wasn’t surprised to see Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan worked on the script as they spun similar batty charm into CAN’T HARDLY WAIT and JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS. Credit to the cast and director Arlene Sanford for operating together so well on the same odd (and narrow) comedic frequency.

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (Dirs: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
“One is starved for Technicolor up there.”

I fear history books will look back at this era in cinema (if there still are history books) as the great age of cheapening. The ideas and voices being represented are evolving very in an interesting way but the technical craft feels flooded and flattened by the artifice of streaming service presentation and the retrograde motion of CGI artistry’s curve. I’m optimistic we have amazing feats to be seen still but the spectacle of cinema is feeling more muted to me at the moment.

Watching a movie like A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH is embarrassing to our current generation. No one is making anything this marvelous and it almost seems as if they’ve stopped trying to go this big with their beauty. The canvases seem smaller these days. I sound cynical but this movie makes me feel like being whimsical is still a possibility. The precision and spirit represented made me melt into an appreciative puddle of audience. The matte work is gorgeous, the use of B&W and color is brilliant, and the script feels timeless and contemporary. The performances are the lynchpin, holding together the whole with a style and grace that seems otherworldly. The combined effect made me feel like I got a whiff of a gourmet meal after eating MATRIX-style dystopia gruel for far too long. This movie is seventy-four years old and would outperform any contemporary piece in a cinematic decathlon. It’s the complete package.

“I’m not afraid of witchcraft. I believe in science.”

Here I was having myself a hissy-fit about the state of cinema in my previous write-up, bemoaning how too few filmmakers are trying to flex like Powell & Pressburger’s routinely did more than half a century ago, and then I go and remember this sawed-off shotgun blast of brute force imagination. I watched it in the middle of my October bender, just hoping to see Chow Yun Fat wink his way through some supernatural action but I quickly realized it was directed with the verve and audacity of someone special. Turns out I was watching another film from Ngai Choi Lam, the director of RIKI-OH: THE STORY OF RIKI -- which is a landmark film in the gleeful-excess region of the cinematic landscape.

This feels like a movie someone broke their idea piggy bank for, scraping every wild notion they’ve had off the floor and into the storyboards (the titular seventh curse is REALLY cool, don’t want to spoil the details). There’s also a scene where something resembling a xenomorph battles something resembling Aylmer from BRAIN DAMAGE. I’m glad I was watching this by myself because my smile during this scene was really goofy. I can’t wait to rewatch because every sequence shined bright enough to burn-off the previous one from my memory. The whole movie lived in the moment and I can’t wait to discover it again.

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