Jan 8, 2015

My 2014 Film Discoveries - Part 2

Happy (belated) New Year!

Yes it's 2015, and thanks to my good friend Rupert Pupkin over at the Rupert Pupkin Speaks blog, it means taking part in the annual tradition of highlighting older film discoveries for me from the past year.

This is part 2 (of 3...with a possible 4th depending on my mood and the reaction), and part 1 can be seen on Rupert's must-read blog HERE.

A quick rundown of my part 1 titles:

THE BABY (1973)
MAD HOUSE (1974)

This was a really good film watching year for me. My watching numbers were up (thanks to the website Letterboxd it is easier to keep track) and although an employment situation and heavy travel took me away from seeing a lot of newer films towards the end of the year (right now the chances that I will be able to do a 2014 Top 10 list in a reasonable time frame are slim) my discoveries list was bursting at the seams.

So on to the list!

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1971; Directed by Anthony Harvey)

This title popped up on my Netflix Instant Streaming recommendations and I was immediately intrigued by the premise and the picture did NOT disappoint.

George C. Scott is a millionaire and well-respected former lawyer and judge who following the death of his wife retreats into a fantasy world where he believes he is the real Sherlock Holmes. His brother (Lester Rawlins) wants to gain control over the family fortune and wants to have Scott committed. Several attempts to do so have failed so he employs psychiatrist Joanne Woodward whose name just so happens to be Dr. Mildred Watson!

The sensible Dr. Watson is charmed by Scott's Sherlock fascination and takes it upon herself to cure him but then finds herself slipping very quickly under his spell and into his fantasy as the two of them travel around New York to find Scott's imagined Moriarty nemesis. Along the way they come into contact with a lovable gang of misfits, some who realize who Scott thinks he is, and others who don't but go along for the ride anyway.

I was completely enchanted by this film, and Woodward and Scott's performances are exceptional. While I won't reveal the ending, I will say that it leaves a lot up to the imagination and I was on the edge of my seat hoping that what the characters were waiting for was actually going to happen. It's the only way this movie could end, and it left me completely enamored with it. Easily my favorite discovery of the year!

Oh yeah and John Barry scored the film - an added bonus.

O.C. AND STIGGS (1985; Directed by Robert Altman)

Robert Altman has his way with the 1980s teen comedy, turning the genre on its ear in a delightful absurd fashion.

The O.C. (Daniel Jenkins) and Stiggs (Neil Barry) of the title have it out for the Schwab family, a picture-perfect American middle class family. They spend the entire movie plotting crazy schemes to embarrass and humiliate the Schwabs.

Doing some extra reading I discovered this movie was a bomb when it was first released and was considered one of Altman's worst. I think it is better watching it with the passage of time because it struck me as a crazy deconstruction of the 80s teen genre (which I do enjoy) and clearly the intelligent Altman touch shines through during the on-screen mania. I had a really good time with this.

THE HARDER THEY COME (1972; Directed by Perry Henzell)

This 1972 Jamaican film is about a young man who moves to the big city with dreams of becoming a Reggae star. He has talent, but after falling in with a corrupt record producer who keeps him from being a hit he turns to a life of extreme violent crime which in the long run turns this one-hit wonder into a raging musical and criminal success.

It's kind of like Bonnie and Clyde (without Bonnie obviously) in that this man's future is murky at best given the extremes of his criminal actions. It's a gritty and realistically shot film where many of the scenes are heartbreaking as we watch him try to make something of himself in a society that is doing everything possible to keep him impoverished. His hit song is played over-and-over again, but that's okay because it's great! It will get stuck in your head, guaranteed.

THE CARD [a.k.a. THE PROMOTER] (1952; Directed by Ronald Neame)

Alec Guinness plays a young man from a poor family with ambitious dreams. He's intelligent, and manages to snake his way into society and the wealth that comes with it from some very smart moves as well as luck that pushes him up the social ladder.

He may be smart, but he has his weaknesses and in this case that comes in the form of a young woman played by Glynis Johns who knows how to spend money all too well. He manages to break off his relationship with her before she drags him back into poverty, but this being the movies she of course re-appears later in his life to complicate things.

An enjoyable movie thanks especially to Guinness' performance which has you wanting him to succeed from the moment he first appears on screen. Johns is also excellent.

SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON (2002; Directed by Kelly Asbury & Lorna Cook)

I'm kind of breaking the rules with this one a little but, so let's call this "rounding down". Rupert's usual guidelines for discoveries is anything pre-2000, but this picture was too good for me not to make an exception (and it's only 2 years over). Rules are sometimes meant to be broken after all.

I remember when this came out over the Memorial Day weekend of 2002 and I believe it was up against Star Wars - Episode II: Attack of the Clones at the box office. I usually try to see everything - especially DreamWorks and Disney animated features - but there was something about the advertising campaign for this as well as of course Star Wars opening that made me miss it. It somehow eluded me until now and has skyrocketed to being my favorite DreamWorks animation feature.

It's the story of a wild stallion in the Old West that is captured by humans who seek to tame him, but this horse has a independent spirit that can't be broken. First taken by the Calvary, then by Native Americans, then as a work horse, we are led on a fabulous journey where the animals have personality and most importantly, they are animals and don't talk to the humans. The film is narrated by the thoughts of the horse (Matt Damon) and I found the narration, the animation style and the overall approach to this story to be near perfect! I think I've used the phrase "being enchanted" by a film already in this list, but I have to use it again because this film completely won me over. This is my second favorite discovery of the year behind They Might Be Giants.

ANGEL FACE (1952; Directed by Otto Preminger)

Angel Face made an appearance on this blog earlier in the year as part of my involvement in Noirvember as a "Femme Fatale Friday" highlight. It's so good I also felt it deserved a spot on my discoveries list.

This is a fantastic Film Noir that opens with an ambulance driver played by Robert Mitchum responding to the near death of a Beverly Hills woman. At first I automatically thought that someone - namely the father (played by Herbert Marshall) - was trying to murder the woman for her money (this is Film Noir after all) but nope, the story stems around her messed up Stepdaughter played expertly by Jean Simmons who doesn't like people getting between her and the men she loves. She is willing to kill to protect that love, even if it means the death of the person she loves as well.

Mitchum has plans to break free of his bland ambulance job and open his own garage, but his character is ultimately pretty lazy and lacks any sort of ambition other than talking about breaking free. He falls in with Simmons and even points out to her face in one moment that he thinks she has murder plans for her stepmother. The relationship lands him in court on a charge of murder and also lands him - literally - somewhere else but I can't go into detail on that because that would ruin a fabulous and shocking ending.

The key to this movie is Simmons who is so beautiful yet so obviously disturbed that she inspires sympathy even while it is obvious she should be locked up somewhere in a strait jacket.

A great Noir from an expert director in the genre (Otto Preminger) that should be watched by any means necessary.

NORTH DALLAS FORTY (1979; Directed by Ted Kotcheff)

I used to write "coming up next" blurbs for a Canadian cable movie channel (Showcase Action which I believe is just called Action now), and North Dallas Forty aired regularly on it. My voice-over talent would always change up my copy for this movie with "they play football a lot and swear a whole lot more." I hadn't seen the movie then so I always imagined it was some sort of raunchy 70s comedy (also, take a look at the one-sheet above). When I finally got around to it this year, I was surprised by the dramatic tone of the picture.

Nick Nolte plays for a team in Dallas that stands in for the Cowboys (when you watch the film you can see why the NFL or the Cowboys wouldn't let them use their brands or logos). He's an aging player who is fighting to keep his spot which is in jeopardy thanks to a bum knee for which he takes painkillers for. The coach (G.D. Spradlin) doesn't like Nolte's non-conformist attitude and is constantly making his professional life miserable.

When not on the field, Nolte and his fellow players engage in plenty of sex, drugs and alcohol. It's a down and dirty look at professional sports, one that is not at all flattering to the NFL or the Cowboys, and Nolte is solid in the role.

And yes, they do play football and swear a lot.  My voice-over talent wasn't wrong on that front.

That's it for part 2, look for part 3 in the next few weeks.