Many elements threatened to get in the way of my movie watching this year which has also been the reason my watching numbers have been down the past couple of years. Also thanks to the plethora of fantastic catalog Blu-ray releases, I found that the first part of the year was steering heavily towards re-visiting titles rather than new-to-me watching. However, I managed not only to get my movie watching back on track but also to the point where I had enough discoveries to fill up two posts and possibly a couple more if I so desired.
The past 2 years, TCM has been the source of many of my discoveries. In 2011, it was their "Drive-In" B movie monster series, and last year it was their Spring Break 1960s surf/beach movies that dominated the list. This year I would have to say it was niche home entertainment labels like the Warner Archive, Twilight Time and Scream Factory that took over.
I have to give the usual shout-out to Rupert Pupkin from the Rupert Pupkin Speaks blog who started this annual tradition and a version of these posts will also appear over there. It’s a fantastic idea as a movie watching year should not only be defined by what’s new in cinemas. In fact thanks to Rupert, I now approach my catalog-title viewing habits with this list in mind.
Just when I think I’ve seen everything, I come across a title I have missed or am introduced to through reading or other movie fans via social media, or something that I have been meaning to watch but for some reason set it aside for a future time. That was the case this year with my top discovery…
BLACK SUNDAY (1977; John Frankenheimer)
I’m not sure how it took me so long to see this movie. I remember seeing the VHS box several times during my high school days as a part-time Video Store employee and kept thinking it was something I should check out. That was during the early 1990s when, thanks to Die Hard, action movies involving terrorist plots where all the rage - although this movie predates that by 11 years. I can thank a Twitter user by the handle of Film Samurai for announcing that Netflix had acquired this title for their streaming service and posted it on Thanksgiving week. I was NOT disappointed, in fact I was blown away. I couldn't stop raving about it.
Bruce Dern plays a disgruntled Vietnam vet who after spending years as a POW is recruited by a Middle East terrorist group to help with a massive attack planned for the Super Bowl in Miami utilizing the Goodyear blimp. Robert Shaw plays a bad-ass Israeli anti-terrorist agent who is trying to stop it before it happens.
Dern’s character is much like Damian Lewis’ Brody character from the Showtime series Homeland, a veteran held as a POW for several years who suddenly finds himself hating everything he fought and gave up his freedom for. Dern is very likable in this role, even as messed up and as dangerous as he is. It is easier to sympathize with him than it is Robert Shaw who is so tough and no-nonsense that when he and his partner arrive in the U.S. to investigate the plot, they come off as complete jerks. I found I had this problem during the first season of Homeland, completely loving Lewis’ Brody who was so obviously about to do something bad compared to Claire Danes’ overzealous and manic Carrie character who I almost couldn’t stand.
It’s hard to imagine in 2013 Goodyear allowing their product name and blimp being used in a proposed terrorist plot, not to mention the NFL allowing actual teams (the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers) and personalities to be used not to mention filming a feature motion picture during an actual Super Bowl game (that would be Super Bowl X) which according to IMDb was accomplished by disguising the film cameras as CBS television cameras. Let's face it, it just won't happen again!
It’s an extremely well-paced and thrilling edge-of-your-seat action movie that is enhanced by a John Williams score that I immediately declared as an “emergency score purchase” which thankfully was still available from a limited numbered edition release from Film Score Monthly. In fact, I liked the movie so much I have even had it running a couple of times in the background as I’ve worked.
THE SPLIT (1968; Gordon Flemyng)
What can I say about the Warner Archive DVD-on-demand service (and now an Instant streaming service as well) except for thank God they exist! If it wasn’t for them, I would have probably never seen this wonderful heist movie that features an all-star cast that includes Jim Brown, Ernest Borgnine, Gene Hackman, Warren Oates, Diahann Carroll, Julie Harris, Jack Klugman, James Whitmore and Donald Sutherland.
The set-up is pretty much the only thing run-of-the-mill about this picture as Jim Brown has the perfect heist plan involving hitting the Los Angeles Coliseum during a Rams football game (again, Football being the target with actual NFL teams - the Rams and Falcons - at the center of it) and assembling a crack crew of criminals to pull it off. The heist goes off without a hitch, but afterwards a bizarre, unforeseen (and incredibly original) complication takes place that results in Brown losing the money and the criminals thinking that he’s pulling a fast one on them. He has to find it fast even going so far as to team up with the cop (Hackman) who is trying to arrest him.
Heist movies like this tend to be a dime a dozen, but this one differentiates itself enough to be wildly entertaining in terms of original twists and characters. It has some great imagery which also manages to make it much more than you would expect.
According to IMDb, the first theatrical release to receive an R rating from the MPAA.
The addition to the list that will make Pupkin proud...
ROLLER BOOGIE (1979; Mark L. Lester)
I can thank Rupert Pupkin for turning me onto this gem. I was so infatuated with this movie that it inspired me to write a fairly intense, glowing review of it on Letterboxd which can be seen HERE.
Hot pants, roller skating and disco...oh my!
Roller Boogie is one of several roller-skating movies to come out of the 70s. This one involves Linda Blair as a roller-skating rich kid who joins up with other skaters to help save the local roller-disco (and their favorite hang-out) from closing down.
There is something magical about this movie, especially given the very dated fad that was Roller Disco from the 70s that is so trapped within a time period that it adds an additional layer of seeing a movie that is definitely of its time. Blair is fantastic, the skating dance numbers are outstanding and it features one of the most bizarre chase sequences you will ever see.
It was available via Netflix streaming at one point and hopefully will be again if it isn’t again already.
ULZANA’S RAID (1972; Robert Aldrich)
Burt Lancaster is McIntosh, a scout assigned to help a green Calvary Lieutenant (played by Bruce Davison) to hunt down the fierce Apache war chief Ulzana who has left the reservation leaving a massacre in his wake. The lieutenant is green and prejudiced against the natives he is tracking, but learns a little from the world-weary and wise McIntosh.
I have been growing a strong admiration for the work of Aldrich which includes The Dirty Dozen, The Longest Yard and Flight of the Phoenix (the original version, not the remake naturally) but this is my favorite title so far. There is a more realistic edge to Aldrich’s west which adds more dirt and grime to the landscape than we’re used to not to mention the attitudes of the characters towards duty and race has a lot more depth than most screen cowboys. Lancaster, as always, is at the top of his game and exudes his world-weary wisdom just by showing up.
This title could easily find itself on my next list of top westerns.
THE CHANGELING (1980; Peter Medak)
This is another movie that I kept coming across during my video store days, but never got around to watching – until now.
George C. Scott takes up a life of grieving solitude after his wife and child are killed in a car accident. The problem is he’s not alone in the cavernous turn-of-the-century house he has taken refuge in as he shares it with the restless spirit of a murdered child.
This is a very creepy movie thanks to relying on a creepy, atmospheric tone rather than outright horror-scares. Not to say there aren’t several scary moments, one of the best being a séance that will stick with you long after the credits have rolled. It’s an expertly crafted sequence that gives me chills just thinking about it.
THE GOOD FAIRY (1935; William Wyler)
I have the great pleasure of volunteering my time to the American Cinematheque, managing their Tumblr page. This past year, they ran a series of Preston Sturges comedies which introduced me to this film which he wrote but did not direct.
The movie stars Margaret Sullivan as a naïve young woman who has just left the sheltered life at an orphanage to work at a movie theater as an usherette. There she discovers the good and bad of humanity as she is taken in and protected by a kindly (yet very prickly) waiter, but then preyed upon by a lecherous millionaire. Using the situation to her advantage, she decides to become a “good fairy” bestowing some poor stranger – a doctor played by Herbert Marshall - with a wealth of riches by making up a story that she is married to the guy but in reality she has never met him. In an attempt to make this stranger’s life better, she complicates things in a comical way.
It’s a delightful little under-known comedy that is enhanced by that trademark Preston Sturges dialogue and a solid cast. It is definitely worth tracking down when you get a chance, especially if you like Sturges and/or comedies from the 30s. Actually just watch it, you'll thank me either way.
THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM (1966; Michael Anderson)
A spy story from the 1960s that is so far removed from the James Bond or Matt Helm franchises that while watching it you may at first feel disappointed or even ripped off expecting something more suave and action packed. Instead, you get smart, down-to-earth spy thriller from a screenplay written by Harold Pinter.
George Segal is Quiller, a confident and cocky American spy in West Berlin investigating the murders of two British operatives who have met their fate at the hands of a dangerous Neonazi organization. Like Bond, Segal is good looking and drives a hot car, but the similarities end there. He is too cocky – often for his own good – doesn’t carry a gun and is more often than not behind the eight ball when it comes to dealing with his enemies and carrying out his mission. The film also happens to have a “this never happened to the other fellow” quality which I can’t get into because it would spoil a masterfully plotted story.
I as well was thrown off by the tone of this, expecting something more in the James Bond realm of things but found myself caught up in the intrigue, and loved the idea of a spy who while sporting good looks and a confident swagger, really is just an ordinary spy just doing his job and is in way over his head at times against some dangerous foes.
Alec Guinness, Max Von Sydow and George Sanders also star.
FROM BEYOND (1986; Stuart Gordon)
It should be no surprise to anyone who follows any of my social media feeds to see a title (and there are more to come) from Shout Factory’s horror label Scream Factory on this list. These outstanding Blu-ray releases have given new life to titles who under any other circumstances might never have seen the light of the High Definition media day, and are jam packed with insightful special features and commentaries. I pre-order and buy every title this label puts out blindly, simply because I know they have a passion for the product and the genre.
From Beyond is a title I probably never would have given a second glance had it not come from Scream Factory. From the creative team that was responsible for Re-Animator (including director Stuart Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna, actors Barbara Compton and Jeffrey Combs, etc.) and also based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft.
While Re-Animator had a somewhat campier approach to the material, From Beyond feels like a more serious film tonally regardless of the outlandish horror gore-effects and make-up creations. The movie so caught my attention that I watched it twice, back-to-back - first just for the film and second to listen to the excellent cast-and-crew commentary on the Blu-ray disc. It really captures the sensuality of Lovecraft’s work while being a cut above other horror movies from the time period in its somewhat serious approach to the tone.
One of the best moments on the commentary is listening to Barbara Compton talk about a scene where she is dressed in full S&M gear, a moment that could be embarrassing for her that she still seems very proud of especially given that the scene – while very sexy – is not played for cheap thrills, but adds an extra layer of gravitas to the already well-handled material.
MY COUSIN RACHEL (1952; Henry Koster)
Here we have an earlier DVD release from the Twilight Time label which also taps into the collectors market, and already in early 2014 has an outstanding slate of releases.
A young Richard Burton is the heir to a fortune passed down to him by a cousin he believes to have been murdered by his new wife Rachel played by Olivia de Havilland. Setting out to confront Rachel, he instead falls under her spell and indeed seems to be falling into the exact same trap his cousin did previously.
This is one of those films that will have you yelling at the screen – and in particular at Burton’s character – as he so foolishly falls for very obvious trappings. Based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca) this gothic tale is enriched by stark black-and-white cinematography and outstanding performances by all. However, it’s De Havilland who really shines!
DEATH VALLEY (1982; Dick Richards)
Poor, poor Peter Billingsley. He spent A Christmas Story being warned that he was about to shoot his own eye out. In Death Valley, it’s more like he’s about to have his eye shot out by someone else.
Billingsley plays Billy, whose mother Catherine Hicks (4 years away from saving the whales with Kirk and crew) divorces brainy New Yorker Edward Herrmann for brawny cowboy Paul Le Mat. Meeting the new boyfriend for the first time, little Billy plays spoiled brat, that is until he crosses paths with a serial killer (Stephen McHattie) who wants him dead. Nothing brings a family together like being stalked by a homicidal maniac.
This is another Scream Factory special, a title I had heard of but knew absolutely nothing about but was pleasantly surprised by. Yes it’s a very simple plot, but the tight pacing and cast turn what should be utter schlock into delightful and suspenseful entertainment.
Part 2 of this list to follow soon.