Monday, December 15, 2014

FAN GUEST POST: Moviocrity's Scott Davis on his favorite movie discoveries of 2014

Each December, we here at TV STORE ONLINE have fans of our blog write guest posts about their favorite movies or whatever is on their mind.  In this first installment, podcaster Scott Davis shares his favorite "movie discoveries" of 2014.

2014 was one rollercoaster of a year. Personal examination led to some parts of my life coming to a close while new opportunities opened up. I saw my old site of Film Geek Central slowly close up shop, at least for now. I guested on several podcasts and wondered if I would even feel like writing again. I did, and came back in full force with my own site, moviocrity.com. While I was continually disappointed by the films of 2014, I also discovered quite a few gems. What follows are the best of several film discoveries from 2014. 

VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS  (1970) – It all starts with a pair of earrings. Before it is over, we will explore feelings of love, lust, terror and abandonment. There will be vampires and other fantastic creatures. Themes of incest, religion, repression and murder will shatter the facade of an idyllic estate. Young Valerie is indeed having quite the week.

Probably the weirdest flick on this list, VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS is a Swedish film that blends fairy tale imagery with deep, dark family secrets and  a young girl experiencing the first stirrings of her sexual awakening. For this latter reason, the film is justifiably controversial. Instead of casting older for the role, Valerie is played (quite well in fact) by 13 year-old Jaroslava Schallerov√°. This can make some of the more lascivious sequences uncomfortable to watch. But the film winds up being so haunting and beautiful on its own that it’s nearly impossible not to get wrapped up in Valerie’s labyrinthine odyssey.

Is what happens in VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS the strange daydreams of a young girl? Is it real? What is real? Your mind will reel while watching this film, because you instinctively know that no interpretation is too out there, nothing is off limits. Gothic horror, fantasy, your most sensual dreaming and your most terrifying nightmares all intersect in this wild flick from Jaromil Jires. The film makes for an intriguing companion piece to Neil Jordan’s THE COMPANY OF WOLVES.

PUNISHMENT PARK (1971) – In Peter Watkin’s mockumentary, an executive order is enforced and groups of anti-government “extremists” are rounded up. Their crimes range from non-violent protests, controversial song lyrics, draft dodging and legitimately violent acts against the state. After being put through a kangaroo court, they are given the choice of harsh prison sentences or a few days in Punishment Park. Choosing the park, the hippies and revolutionaries are expected to walk across over fifty miles of desert with no water. The event serves as a training exercise for law enforcement that chases the lab rats and insists there will be no problem, provided no one resists arrest. A deputy is supposedly killed, which makes the already aggravated police ready to step things up. That we never met the deputy, never saw him being assaulted and only have a prop body and the word of the police spurs some important questions. Did one of the radicals kill a police officer? Did the police stage the event? Or are government officials playing law enforcement against the citizenry in an attempt to retain their power and exterminate society’s so-called problem elements?

2014 is ending with images of protests in the streets. My country is becoming involved in conflicts halfway across the world, while at home, poverty and allegations of police brutality dominate the public consciousness. Hence, this film does not feel like a time capsule from more than forty years ago. Take out references to Indochina, and it feels as though it could have been made this afternoon. Shots of police opening fire on unarmed civilians and an African-American being deprived of oxygen while a half dozen men subdue him recall the very real images that have sparked so much outrage. Peter Watkins film about the widening divide between government bodies and the people they are sworn to serve is both tragic and terrifying.

SKATETOWN U.S.A. (1979) – For years, I have had fuzzy memories of watching SKATETOWN U.S.A. on the Movie Channel back in 1981. I remembered a guy with big glasses and hair of tinsel that shot lasers. I remembered Scott Baio disappearing into the background (which is the best way to treat Scott Baio). I remembered an evil roller disco gang, if that’s even possible. I remembered a plot that went from one inane thing to the next without making a lick of sense, all to the pulsing beat of a never-ending soundtrack of disco, funk and soul. Surely, this must have been the inaccurate, cobbled together memories from childhood. Surely, none of that could have been real.

It was. All of this happens and so much more. Young stars of the day (Patrick Swayze! Ron Palillo! Maureen McCormack!) join forces with confused relics of vaudeville and television (Flip Wilson! Ruth Buzzi! Billy Barty!) for 98 minutes of glitter-soaked nonsense that I loved from beginning to end. It will likely never see a legitimate DVD or Blu-ray release thanks to soundtrack issues, at least not unless someone takes a major interest.

NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER (1980) – Here it is. If I had to narrow this list down to one film, one film I consider the most amazing discovery of the year, it would be NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER.  Sean (James Brolin) is an ex-cop and divorced father trying to raise his daughter in New York City. He drops her off at school and watches in horror as a lunatic snatches her and drives off. Sean immediately starts chasing after the two on a daylong, citywide trek to get his daughter back. Even when he encounters demons from his own past and the distance between him and his little girl seems to be widening, he never falters.

NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER is non-stop. No big special effects or lousy comic relief. It's an exciting, dramatically-charged film from beginning to end. The film is a time capsule of a dangerous but nostalgic time. Sean may race across the city, but there was no way NIGHT OF THE JUGGLER made it into any NYC tourist packages. New York is presented as a sprawling hell on Earth. We get an up close look at the genuine 42nd Street grindhouses and sex palaces. We get dangerous neighborhoods where certain people shouldn’t venture; unheard of today, but not in 1980. We see miles of abandoned buildings, an important plot point it turns out. The film shows the most disgusting worm-infested crevices of the Big Apple while also celebrating the city as a living, breathing, vibrant part of the American landscape.  Be sure to look for adult film icon Sharon Mitchell in a bit role.

FINDING BLISS (2009) – Speaking of adult stars, now we speed ahead nearly thirty years to this overlooked but completely charming comedy. Jody (Leelee Sobieski) has won a prestigious award for her student film, but she finds the realities of Hollywood are stacked against women. The only job she can get in the industry is as an editor for Grind, an adult film company. The sexually repressed young filmmaker is shocked by the graphic nature of the videos she cuts, and wonders if she is somehow sacrificing her feminist ideals by taking part in such a venture. So, why does she do it? Because Grind has their own studio and top of the line equipment. Jody can’t get any of the studios to bite on her dream film. But she figures she can always shoot the film on the Grind set when no one is looking.

It would be easy to simply poke fun at the porn industry and drag it through the mud, but FINDING BLISS doesn’t do that. In fact, the more time Jody spends with Grind, the more she starts to respect some of the cast and crew at the studio. Jody starts to question everything she once believed as she is not only aroused by some of the material, but surprised at the thoughtfulness of those she works with. This is further solidified when she realizes that Grind’s star director Jeff Drake (Matthew Davis) was the previous recipient of her film school’s award. At first confused by conflicting emotions of idolization and betrayal, she realizes she is developing feelings for this unlikely kindred spirit.

Why doesn’t FINDING BLISS judge like so many of its critics would have liked? Perhaps because it is a romanticized yet semi-autobiographical film. Director Julie Davis – a truly underrated talent – was also a blazing talent from AFI. Like Sobieski’s character of Jody, she raised money for her own film, I LOVE YOU DON’T TOUCH ME while editing promos for the Playboy Channel and even directing the horror flick, WITCHCRAFT 6. Whatever the case, FINDING BLISS is a funny, sweet film with plenty of eye-opening and touching moments, no pun intended.

Please check out Scott's video series of Moviocrity on Vimeo here.