Monday, August 28, 2017

20 Treasures from the Past: Recent Film Discoveries

Each passing year leads me to movies from previous eras that are new discoveries for me. These are my 20 most recent favorite uncovered treasures, all listed in order of preference, with ways to see each listed for your viewing convenience. Enjoy! 
RAPTURE (UK/France, 1965; dir: John Guillermin) Starring: Patricia Gozzi, Dean Stockwell, Melvyn Douglas, Gunnel Lindblom. Screenplay: Stanley Mann. Cinematography (Cinemascope, B&W): Marcel Grignon. Score: Georges Delarue. PLOT: A mentally unstable teenage girl, living on her stern elderly father's seaside estate, builds a scarecrow, and thinks it's come to life when an good-natured escaped convict (with whom she falls in love) dismantles it for a change of clothes while on the run from the law. COMMENTS: An overwhelmingly emotional lead performance from young Patricia Gozzi (her final film performance after making a splash with the Oscar-winning Sundays and Cybele, to which this movie bears some resemblance) leads this unusual love story. The widescreen cinematography is breathtaking in its ability to instill vertigo and imbalance amidst the gorgeous seaside locales and claustrophobic interiors. The sexually frank relationship between the 15-year-old Gozzi and the 28-year-old Dean Stockwell (himself a one-time child star) may rub some the wrong way, but I found it incredibly delicate and moving. A standout directorial job from John Guillermin, later the director of such big budget blockbusters as The Towering Inferno, the 1976 King Kong and Agatha Christie adaptation Death on the Nile; this was reputedly his favorite of his films, and he was crushed when this effusive art film sank without a trace. The incredible score from Georges Delarue further enriches this tragic tale. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: Blu Ray and on You Tube. 

THE TALL TARGET (US, 1951; dir: Anthony Mann) Starring: Dick Powell, Adolphe Menjou, Will Geer, Ruby Dee, Marshall Thompson, Paula Raymond, Leif Erickson, Florence Bates. Screenplay: George Worthington Yates, Art Cohn, and Daniel Mainwaring. Cinematography (B&W): Paul Vogel. Editing: Newell P Kimlin. PLOT: In 1862, on the eve of President Abraham Lincoln's inauguration, a New York police sergeant boards a Washington DC-bound train, intent on investigating a possible assassination plot against the new president. COMMENTS: Typically exciting direction from noir and western specialist Anthony Mann gooses up this brilliant thriller, all taking place aboard a speeding train. Powell is impressive as the determined detective with a hero worship of the newly-elected President Lincoln, but perhaps even more impressive is young Rudy Dee as a slave who has some important information to impart about her owners (her declaration that her freedom is her own, and not to be given as a gift, is the film's acting highlight). Also excellent are Adolphe Menjou as an untrustworthy colonel, and Will Geer as the train's irritated conductor. Based on a true story, this one screams out for a remake. Mann makes the interesting choice of eschewing a musical score, and this makes the film notably more suspenseful. Paul Vogel's photography pops, as does the taut editing. The final line is perfect. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: Warner Archives DVD.

THE GRAVY TRAIN (aka The Dion Brothers) (US, 1974; dir: Jack Starrett) Starring: Stacy Keach, Frederic Forrest, Margot Kidder, Richard Romanus, Barry Primus. Screenplay: Bill Kirby and Terrence Malick (billed as David Whitney). Cinematography (color): Gerald Hirchfeld and Enrique Bravo. Music: Fred Karlin. PLOT: Two ambitious West Virginian brothers set out on an ill-conceived Washington DC armored car heist, and end up as fugitives and targets for even bigger criminal fish. COMMENTS: Terrific, forgotten '70s crime film with energetic lead performances from Stacy Keach and then-newcomer Frederic Forrest. That it's all co-scripted by autuer Terence Malick (under a nom de plume) makes it even more worth checking out. Evocative West Virginia and DC location work, and a truly astounding climactic shootout set in a run-down tenement building as a wrecking ball breaks the place apart--this action sequence is unlike anything I've ever seen. Kidder is wasted (the film just sort of forgets about her at its too-abrupt ending), and the Karlin score is, as usual with him, kind of a mismatch. But The Gravy Train is mostly a not-to-miss 70s relic--one that Quentin Tarantino reportedly wants to redo. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: You Tube

THE BREAKING POINT (US, 1950; dir: Michael Curtiz). Starring: John Garfield, Patricia Neal, Juano Hernandez, Wallace Ford, Phillis Thaxter, Victor Sen Yung, Sherry Jackson. Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall, based on a story by Ernest Hemingway. Cinematography (B&W): Ted McCord. Music: Max Steiner. Editing: Alan Crosland Jr. PLOT: In order to keep his boat-for-hire business afloat, a happily married sea captain is hoodwinked into a series of increasingly dangerous assignments, leading to a dalliance with a sexy platinum blonde and to much brutal violence. COMMENTS: Brilliantly scripted noir goes unexpected places, with Garfield excellent as the increasingly harried lead. Patricia Neal plays against type very well here (with some pretty sexy dialogue to boot), and the movie doesn't forget to give a good role to dowdy wife Phyllis Thaxter, who tries to transform herself in order to lure her husband back into her arms. Also good is Juano Hernandez as Garfield's co-captain and Wallace Ford as a sweaty, cigar-chomping conman who lures Garfield away from the straight and narrow. Basically a remake of Howard Hawks' To Have and To Have Not, this one surely stands on its own, with a hauntingly sad final shot. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: The Criterion Collection DVD and Blu Ray

THE BAND WAGON (US, 1953; dir: Vincente Minnelli). Starring: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan, James Mitchell, Ava Gardner, Screenplay: Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Songs: Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz. Music: Adolph Deutsch and Alexander Courage. Cinematography (color): Harry Jackson and George Folsey. Costumes: Mary Ann Nyberg. Art Direction: Preston Ames and Cedric Gibbons. Makeup: William Tuttle. PLOT: A musical movie star, fallen on hard times, agrees to a rejuvenation of his career via a new Broadway adaptation of Faust set in the gangster underworld, only to see the entire project threatened by the casting of a ballerina in the female lead, and the overboard direction of an egotistic megalomaniac. COMMENTS: I have some problems with this widely praised MGM musical--the tunes aren't great, primarily. But let’s talk about the things that make The Band Wagon worth watching. First of all, there’s long-legged Cyd Charisse, stunning as the ballerina nabbed for Astaire’s female lead in the show. She’s fine in the dialogue scenes but, man, she makes our eyes pop out of our skulls in her grapplings with Astaire (all devised by MGM house choreographer Michael Kidd). Their tentative, beautifully timed steps in the middle of Central Park, to a wordless “Dancing in the Dark,” catapult the sequence into its standing as the film’s highlight. With its dusky backdrop of a lamppost and a park bench, you can easily see its marks on Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. Also, there’s the incredibly influential grand finale, a stage version of a film noir saga that rather bravely becomes more cinematic as it advances. Astaire is a detective, and Charisse his blond femme fatale, and if this sequence feels familiar while you’re watching it, it’s because an adoring Michael Jackson faithfully rejiggered it for his “Smooth Criminal” video, right down to the costume choices. I do have to mention the costumes by Mary Ann Nyberg as another of the movies major pluses (particularly every dazzling, sparkly outfit Charisse is decked out in; there no better model than a woman with THAT impossibly luscious figure, and rail-thin Astaire looks pretty dashing throughout, too). The art direction by MGM stalwarts Cedric Gibbons and Preston Ames, and the cinematography by Harry Jackson each follow suit with comparable excellence. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: DVD

THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN (UK, 1960; dir: Basil Dearden). Starring: Jack Hawkins, Nigel Patrick, Richard Attenbourough, Bryan Forbes, Roger Livesey, Eobert Coote, Kieron Moore, Patrick Wymark. Screenplay: Bryan Forbes. Cinematography (B&W): Arthur Ibbetson. PLOT: A disgraced colonel recruits a team of similarly disparaged veterans, all down on hard times, to enact a bank heist with military precision, yet with unexpected complications. COMMENTS: The basic template of a heist film is given a British twist here, with screenwriter and director-to-be Bryan Forbes delivering an surprising script that undercuts our expectations as to the eventual outcome. The film may be a little slow for some (it takes a bit to get going), but once the heist is underway, it's riveting. The entire cast of UK character actors performs at top tier. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: Amazon Instant

THREE CAME HOME (US, 1950; dir: Jean Negulesco). Starring: Claudette Colbert, Sessue Hayakawa, Patric Knowles, Florence Desmond, Marc Keuning, Sylvia Andrew. Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson, based on the book by Agnes Newton Keith. Cinematography (B&W): Milton Krasner. Music: Hugo Friedhofer. Editing: Dorothy Spencer. PLOT: While stationed in North Borneo in the East Indies, an American officer is separated from his headstrong wife and son when the Japanese force all foreigners into concentration camps, where the wife strikes up a tenuous friendship with the camp commandant. COMMENTS: Based on a true story, this unexpectedly brutal wartime drama features one of Claudette Colbert's best performances (she takes punches like a champ). Her tentative friendship with camp commandant Sessue Hayakawa is treated with care, without reducing him to a monster (he's a fan of Colbert's character's writing). The portrayal of concentration camp life is rife with violence, disease, and longing, not just with Colbert, but also with her fellow prisoners (lots of notable supporting performances from the women here, while the Japanese soldiers, while treated with humanity, are still rather terrifying). The romantic moments between Colbert and Patric Knowles are too soapy for my tastes, but it all works in the end. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: Amazon Prime

SOMETHING WILD (US, 1961; dir: Jack Garfein). Starring: Carroll Baker, Ralph Meeker, Mildred Dunnock, Jean Stapleton, Clifton James, Doris Roberts, Martin Kosleck. Screenplay: Jack Garfein and Alex Karmel. Cinematography (B&W): Eugene Shuftan. Music: Aaron Copland. Titles: Saul Bass. PLOT: A troubled NYC woman, recovering from a traumatic street rape, attempts suicide, only to be rescued and imprisoned by a drunken, imbalanced man who falls in love with her. COMMENTS: Extremely discomforting drama with evocative 60s-era NYC locations, it's led by Carroll Baker's devastating performance as a woman at the end of her tether. The early rape scene is justifiably disturbing, and some may (understandably) balk at the film's insistence on having her fall in love with her captor (a scuzzy Ralph Meeker). I appreciated, though, its unusual direction (from Baker's then-husband Jack Garfein, who didn't make many more movies after this). Further enhanced by a Saul Bass title sequence and Aaron Copland's odd score. Not a movie to watch if you're easily upset. Features early pre-sitcom performances from Jean Stapleton (All in the Family) and Doris Roberts (Everybody Loves Raymond). CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: The Criterion Collection DVD and Blu Ray

TURN THE KEY SOFTLY (UK, 1953; dir: Jack Lee) Starring: Yvonne Mitchell, Kathleen Harrison, Joan Collins, Terence Morgan, Thora Hird, Geoffrey Keen, Dorothy Allison, Glyn Houston. Screenplay: Jack Lee and Maurice Cowan. Cinematography (B&W): Geoffrey Unsworth. Music: Mischa Spoliansky. PLOT: Three women are released from a British prison, and each take very different, but intersecting, approaches to their newfound freedom. COMMENTS: Melodramatic but effective yarn benefits from a trio of dandy female leads: Yvonne Mitchell as a falsely convicted woman who, upon her release from prison, ventures back into crime via her dalliance with bad guy Terence Morgan (leading to a truly exciting climactic chase); Joan Collins as a sexy bad girl who tries to go straight; and (best of the bunch) Kathleen Harrison as an elderly shoplifter with a strong attachment to her little dog. Tremendous 50s-era London locations are a prime asset. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: You Tube

CAN-CAN (US, 1960; dir: Walter Lang) Starring: Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan, Juliet Prowse. Screenplay: Dorothy Kingsley and Charles Lederer. Cinematography (color): William H. Daniels. Costumes: Irene Sharaff. Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler and Jack Martin Smith. Songs: Cole Porter. Music: Nelson Riddle. Choreography: Hermes Pan. PLOT: In turn-of-the-20th Century Paris, the proprietor and head performer of a new dance club featuring scandalous "can-can" numbers is beset upon by lawmen bent on shutting down the nightspot in the name of moral decency. COMMENTS: It's difficult to buy Sinatra and MacLaine as true Parisians (especially alongside real Frenchmen Chevalier and Jourdan). But the French supporting players are both rather boring while the two leads are as dynamic as one might expect (particularly the always ridiculously cute MacLaine). Their dialogue is spicily funny, and the too-few  can-can sequences are quite spectacular. As with Lang's The King and I, there's a long ballet that stops the film in its middle, but all the rest of it is entertainingly smart, with classic Cole Porter songs, and more colorful art direction and costuming than any movie has a right to have. Trivia note: Russian president Nikita Khrushchev visited the set of this film upon his famous 1959 visit to American, and was scandalized by what he saw, proclaiming the film as an obvious sign of Western decadence. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: 20th Century Fox DVD

GOMORRAH (Italy, 2008; dir: Matteo Garrone). Starring:  Toni Servillo, Gianfelice Imparato, Maria Nazionale, Salvatore Cantalupo, Gigio Morra, Salvatore Abruzzese, Marco Macor, Ciro Petrone. Screenplay: Matteo Garrone, Roberto Saviano, Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, and Massimo Gaudioso. Cinematography (color): Marco Onorato. PLOT: Five intertwining stories of lives touched by the modern-day Italian mafia. COMMENTS: The deliberate pacing of this epic Italian film might turn off some expecting a more exciting crime drama, but ultimately this movie stirs us with its frank depiction of life under Mafia rule. Highly acclaimed upon its release, it's now been turned into an ongoing Italian TV series. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: The Criterion Collection Blu Ray and Amazon Prime

WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU (UK, 1988; dir: Colin Gregg). Starring: Alan Bates, Gary Oldman, Liz Smith, Max Wall, Frances Barber. Screenplay: Hugh Stoddart. Cinematography (color): Michael Garfath. PLOT: While his married bisexual lover is in prison, a lonely middle-aged man finds himself obsessed with taking care of his lovable German Shepherd, which he suspects is being neglected and abused by his lover's elderly parents. COMMENTS: Alan Bates is incredible in the lead here, as he tears his hair out trying to get control and ownership of the German Shepherd left behind by young and irresponsible Gary Oldman, who's impossible to confer with while in prison. Smith and Wall, as his clueless parents, are terribly frustrating, and Barber plays Oldman's wife with a supreme bitchiness. The movie may be difficult viewing for animal lovers, but it does pay off satisfactorily. Based on the autobiographical book by J.R. Ackerley, who later penned another tome My Dog Tulip, which was adapted into a much-easier-to-take animated film in 2009. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: Amazon Prime

L'ENFER (Hell) (France, 1994; dir: Claude Chabrol). Starring: Emmanuelle Beart, Francois Cluzot, Nathalie Cardone, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Thomas Chabrol. Screenplay: Claude Chabrol, based on a script by Henri-Georges Cluzot. Cinematography (color): Bernard Zitzermann. Music: Matthew Chabrol. PLOT: A French hotel owner sees his magical marriage to a beautiful woman disintegrate into ruins after he begins to suspect her of infidelity. COMMENTS: Typically trying Chabrol drama-cum-suspenser, with Cluzot killing it (literally) as a frantic husband, and Beart also excellent as his falsely accused wife. Stunning and troubling conclusion to this late-era entry from Chabrol, who rightfully had a reputation as the French Hitchcock. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: DVD

OFFICIAL REJECTION (US, 2009; dir: Paul Osborne) Starring: Paul Osborne, Brian Osborne, Scott Storm, Andy Dick, Lloyd Kaufman, Jenna Fischer, Chris Gore, Bryan Singer. PLOT: A team of filmmakers, having finished their 2006 production Ten 'til Noon, embark on the festival circuit, only to discover that getting their movie in front of audiences is more difficult than expected. COMMENTS: A cautionary tale for any aspiring filmmaker embarking on the festival circuit, this fetching documentary gives us a tour of various festivals--ones that are low-attended scam operations, poorly run and under staffed, and then ones that are deliciously huge. Based on my own experience with various film festivals around the US, this breezy and sometimes funny film has important, still relevant things to say about the measures filmmakers should take before submitting their films to any outfit whatsoever. Do your research before paying that submission fee! CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: Amazon Prime

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (New Zealand, 2014; dir: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi). Starring: Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonny Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stu Rutherford, Ben Fransham, Jackie van Beek. Screenplay: Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi. Cinematography (color): Richard Bluck and D.J. Stipsen. Music: Plan 9. Costumes: Amanda Neale. PLOT: A team of documentary filmmakers embed themselves with a group of New Zealand vampires, all sharing a living space while trying to conduct their bloodsucking under a cover of domesticity. COMMENTS: This recent cult hit from New Zealand comedy staples Clement (from band and HBO hit Flight of the Concords) and Oscar-winner Waititi is just a witty romp through the lives of vampires who, as it turns out, have the same petty arguments and desires as those of us among the living. It goes off the rails in the final third, but there are lots of great one-liners in this film salted with surprisingly well-crafted sets and costumes. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: Blu Ray and Amazon Prime

THE CATERED AFFAIR (US, 1956; dir: Richard Brooks). Starring: Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds, Barry Fitzgerald, Rod Taylor, Madge Kennedy, Robert F. Simon, Dorothy Stickney. Screenplay: Gore Vidal, based on the play by Paddy Chayefsky. Cinematography (B&W): John Alton. Music: Andre Previn. Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons and Paul Groesse. PLOT: In order to make up for past neglect, the wife of a poor New York City cab driver is determined to squander their savings on a huge wedding that neither the daughter or her betrothed really desire. COMMENTS: The unusual cast is top notch here, and even if the film doesn't always sport the excellent dialogue we might expect from the author of Marty and Network, it still reaches enjoyable extremes as it goes along. The art direction here is excellent (even given the low rent surroundings). CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: Warner Brothers Archives DVD

SHOTGUN STORIES (US, 2007; dir: Jeff Nichols). Starring: Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs, Glenda Pannell, Natalie Canerday, Cole Hendrixson. Screenplay: Jeff Nichols. Cinematography (color): Adam Stone. PLOT: In backwoods Arkansas, a violent feud erupts between two neighboring families. COMMENTS: A taut debut film from Jeff Nichols and his ongoing collaborator, actor Michael Shannon. with whom he's become more famous with movies like Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special, and Loving. The supporting cast, authentic and equally tense, is superb, all successfully selling this fresh take on Hatfield-and-McCoy-type clashes. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: Amazon Prime

STEVE MCQUEEN: THE MAN AND LE MANS (US/UK, 2014; dir: Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna). Starring: Steve McQueen, John Frankenheimer, John Sturges. Cinematography (color): Matt Smith. Editing: Matt Wylie. PLOT: A documentary focused on Steve McQueen's steadfast and reckless life as a race car driver first, and a movie star second. COMMENTS: McQueen comes off as a rather self-absorbed asshole here, but at least the film is truthful about the widely-loved movie star who died way too early, before his career could reach full fruition. The racing footage, filmed largely for John Sturges' Le Mans (as a response to Frankenheimer's problematic racing epic Grand Prix) is compelling, and the tales being told by people who knew McQueen (some of whom were almost killed by his sometimes drunken antics behind the wheel) are revealing, if not flattering. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: Amazon Prime

GIRL MOST LIKELY (US, 2012; dir: Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini). Starring: Kristen Wiig, Annette Bening, Matt Dillon, Darren Criss, Natasha Lyonne, Bob Balaban, Whit Stillman, Mickey Sumner. Screenplay: Michelle Morgan. Cinematography (color): Steve Tedlin. PLOT: After failing as a New York City writer, a dejected woman returns to her New Jersey home to recover her inner voice, only to have her efforts hindered by her wildly adventurous mother (conducting an affair with a supposed CIA spy), and a tenuous romance with an aspiring lawyer. COMMENTS: Directed by the team who brought us the 2003 adaptation of Harvey Pekar's comic American Splendor, this rather typical looking rom-com is actually quite amusing, told with both outrageousness (especially with Bening and Dillon who make an unusual couple) and believable humanism. Wiig is at her best here in this lovely comedy--her best next to the smash hit Bridesmaids. CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: Amazon Prime

PAY OR DIE (US, 1960; dir: Richard Wilson). Starring: Ernest Borgnine, Zohra Lampert, Alan Austin, Renata Vanni, Bruno Della Santina, John Marley, Robert F. Simon. Screenplay: Richard Collins and Bertram Millhauser. Cinematography (B&W): Lucien Ballard. Music: David Raskin. PLOT: In the first decades of the 20th Century, a lonely NYC police lieutenant ascends the police department ladder after resolving to take on the newly powerful Mafia upon seeing their crippling effect on the low-income population of Italian families and shopkeepers. COMMENTS: Certainly corny around the edges (with lotsa "Mamma Mia" Italian cliches), this early Mafia film is still notable for its historical importance as a true story dramatization of the nascent days of the Italian "Black Hand" crime ring. Borgnine is good here, but the real standout is Zohra Lampert, who impresses as the shopgirl who falls for Borgnine, despite his not being the most handsome guy around. With her method-flavored performance, she makes us believe in this unusual love affair. Photographed by The Wild Bunch and Ride The High Country master Lucien Ballard, this one would also work as a remake! CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON: Warner Brother Archives DVD

No comments: