Favorite Older Films First Viewed in 2013 (Part 3 of 5)

This is a list I first saw on Rupert Pupkin Speaks. The idea is to list your favorite films from the past year that you saw for the first time, but exclude new releases. This allows much more variety and creates a lot of great suggestions if you read many of them.

Since I tracked these films much more closely this year my list grew long. I will occasionally combine selections by theme, but there is enough for five posts. These choices are in no particular order.

Enjoy!

Maya (1966)

Maya (1966, MGM)

This is one of two titles that appears on this section of the list thanks to their being made available by Warner Archive. This is one of the great things about Warner Archive is that they do rescue these titles from obscurity. This was one of Jay North’s rare film roles after Dennis the Menace was done airing, and it was apparently popular enough to spawn a TV-Show spin-off that ran for a season, which starred both himself and his sidekick Rajid Khan.

Maya tells a simple tale of a boy who runs away in India after a fight with his father, but does so very entertainingly and creates great adventures, and a wonderful bond between its two leading characters.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, MGM)

If you like films that take place all in the course of 24 hours it’s kind of hard to do better than Bad Day at Black Rock. The film brilliantly takes its time, paints xenophobia and builds tension. Furthermore:

This film sets itself up so well and does things that work in its favor constantly. It deals with xenophobia, with regards to its ghost character; it deals with the stranger-in-a-strange-land trope brilliantly, with its protagonist; however, it also makes the paranoia felt in this town so palpable the lead is instantly on the defensive, such that you’re left unsure as to what his business in town is. It’s a cloistered and oddly claustrophobic tale, in what looks like an inhabited ghost town that’s well worth watching.

Bolt (2008)

Bolt (2008, Disney)

This was one of my more fortuitous viewings of the year. It was already into my March to Disney theme it was early on a Sunday, before you even ponder doing much of anything, and this came on Disney Channel. I found myself not only pleasantly surprised that this was a good Disney animated feature of recent vintage that I didn’t give a fair shake when it was released theatrically, but also that it shared similar themes and topics as a classic with modernized touches.

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)

Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971,  Apollo Pictures)

When you’re dealing with the two titans of Italian horror you’re lucky to find a new-to-you film. Recently, prior-to-its-reissue, I happened upon a region-two DVD of this hard-to-find film.

When one gravitates towards Italian horror and starts to navigate it, one is generally made aware of the two most titanic figures in it: Argento and Fulci. Many viewers make it seem like you have to embrace one and scorn the other. I do not believe that is so. They both operate in rather different ways, but this title perhaps could be viewed as the closest to there being a stylistic overlap, certain tropes are similar: the approach to the narrative highly stylized, while the protagonist “witnessed” the incident in a dream, or fugue state early she (like us) is trying to make sense of what she saw, to identify the culprit, going in chase of them parallel to police activity, and independent of them.

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin may not be Fulci’s greatest work, but it is another great work of Fulci’s I was glad to discover.

The Smart Set (1928)

the-smart-set

I will admit there is an unevenness to the lead performance in this title. William Haines is a jokester who has to start realizing the consequences of his actions and be brought back down to earth. He loves a girl, he’ll want to win her. Perhaps one of the brilliant things about the film is that is does work despite the fact that for about 30 minutes Haines seems to be enacting a slapstick performance from the decade prior. However, when he starts acting more like a person he is pretty good and charming. The film is funny, romantic and dramatic and really starts to kick into gear. This was a film I discovered thanks to Coy Watson, Jr.’s biography, and he does brilliantly in his small role. The standout may be the reconstructed, gorgeous score of the film. Many thanks to Warner Archive for that and for making this great film available.

Sisters (1973)

Sisters (1973, AIP)

One way I chose selections for 61 Days of Halloween was Stephen King’s list of standout horror films from 1950-1980. On it a few selections were Brian De Palma films. I went into this film a virtual blank slate and was very glad I did.

Sisters is a great little gem. I use that term because it starts with a fairly small series of events one after another that slowly turn in to a much bigger plot than was intimated at first. The simple Hitchcockian mystery element gets more byzantine as it progresses; even throwing some last second misdirection, making certain things even weirder than they are.

Hell Night (1981)

Hell Night (1981, Compass International)

This is a choice I owe completely to my being invited to participate in my first ever podcast as a guest. Because of that I finally got around to viewing this film. If you want more in depth discussion of the film you can go check that out. For a quick blurb that may convince you, read this:

It may be another slasher, another slasher with college co-eds but it does try to spice things up. Firstly, the four pledges who are locked in the house of ill-repute overnight are two different factions: those very much into the fraternity/sorority process and those not so enamored with the idea, doing it because they feel they have to.

And as mentioned on the podcast, it does masquerade as a haunted house film a bit which gives it an additional layer.

The Neverending Story (Original German Cut) (1984)

The Neverending Story (19484, Warner Bros.)

This was an alternate cut that I didn’t even know existed until I saw an announcement from Diabolik DVD. If you’re interested in specific, detailed explanations of what changes in this version the IMDb does have an exhaustive user-submitted list.

In short: some of the voice talent is different, the score is different, some scenes play out longer and better. You have to be a huge fan of the film to want to pay to get this version (the Blu-Ray is region-free, by the way), but if you are it’s well worth it, as there is a different, at times darker feel to it. It also has a German dub that I may try out one day.

Dead Souls (2012)

Dead Souls (2012, Chiller)

There are a few noteworthy things about this film. First, it’s the newest title and second it’s the only made-for-TV movie that appears on the list. It’s one that I wish I had sneaked into my 2012 BAM Awards. As it stands, I didn’t and it makes an appearance here.

What this film does that’s slightly off the beaten path is that it plays out like a haunted house/ghost story, but also has an element of occult building and that puts it’s own spins on the events.

It leaves its protagonist John (Jesse James) alone much of the time. That’s good for character work, especially when there’s an expressive actor in tow. James has a natural sensitivity that exudes off the screen and allows him to carry the vehicle quite easily. He effortlessly handles the notes he has to play in the film: thoughtful, quiet, scared – and, upon learning what he deals with, feeling an emotional pull to the place and his family he’d never known. He does brilliant work here.

It’s definitely worth checking out.

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March to Disney: What Bolt and Dumbo Share

This is a series of posts this month wherein I will focus on Disney films. For more on my background with Disney films and about the timing of this focus please read the introductory post here.

What’s been great is that I have through sheer luck managed to come across titles I had previously not seen as soon as this theme started. Just recently while browsing Netflix these two titles came up, then randomly on a Sunday morning on Disney Channel Bolt came on.

Now, again, this film came out when I wasn’t as ardently following Disney films. Since it happened to be starting I stuck with it, even with the commercial interruptions. What I hadn’t realized before it came out was that the tale, in which a dog who has been raised to believe the TV show he’s the star of is reality, is not just the set-up to The Truman Show, but in a way Disney refashioning Dumbo with a modern twist.

I saw that because the goals and the protagonists are similar inasmuch as they are unwitting stars. Dumbo is young and knows only the circus, his large ears are hidden, when they come out he’s mocked by the public he’d tried to win. When he learns to fly his unique trait is not a stigma but a mark of pride. The naïveté in the story is more about how he perceives the world.

Bolt’s reality, more modern, stylized, with action sequences, is no different. He’s presented everything as if it’s happening and has to defend his master. Granted the means of production, the stuntmen, the pyro rigs, any essentials needed to produce a TV show, are hidden so it’s easier for him to accept the reality. By chance he gets marooned out in the real world and he wants to and feels he needs to return home to the studio. He faces a lot of hard truths he has to come to terms with, the reversals of fortune are strong and quickly dealt with and the film is very funny.

While there are twists to it, like Dumbo being a more knowing participant in the circus, not that he ever “agrees,” it breaks down to the same path. You substitute a mother for an owner and both seek reunion with that figure. Both struggle against the odds and ultimately win out, gain that reunion and freedom from the life of performance that kept them trapped.

A recent New York Times article had one of the most telling quotes I ever saw, it was a discussion of both films and criticism where the statement “They don’t make them like they used to and they never did” was made. It may seem obvious that film is an ever-evolving artform, but sometimes it’s hard to accept that. There are technical and narrative trends that are the norm and en vogue in one decade and seem passé and almost wrong in another.

Dumbo is a masterpiece because of how perfectly all the elements of the story are rendered from the animation, to the emotional engagement, to the story, music and songs. Everything fits and works perfectly. I wouldn’t say Bolt is a masterpiece but it is very good, in part, because it borrows and adapts so well from a great source. Everyone borrows, self-plagiarism is style and any other quote you can think of can apply to this notion. Disney has done it before, but while it has fallen flat on other occasions like in Hercules, here it’s an infusion of technique, action film editing, humor and an updated sensibility that doesn’t seem forced that really makes it work.