Sunday, January 31, 2010

Underrated Movie #27: Tension

That's right, it's another theme week: Film Noir!

Title: Tension
Year: 1949
Director: John Berry
Writer: Allen Rivkin, based on a story by John Klorer
Stars: Richard Basehart (La Strada), Audrey Totter (The Set-Up), Cyd Charisse (Singing in the Rain), Barry Sullivan (The Bad and the Beautiful)

The Story: After his wife leaves him for a he-man, a milquetoast ex-G.I. plots his revenge. First he has to get some new-fangled contact lenses to create a separate identity. Then he discovers that the new man he’s created is ready to move on. But now it’s too late to stop the consequences…

How it Came to be Underrated: Barry was blacklisted by the McCarthy witchhunts and fled to Europe. By the time he made it home his career was over and his films were forgotten.

Why It’s Great:

  1. I decided to start off noir week with a rare “textbook” noir. Film histories often play up the “G.I. panic over cheating wives” aspect of the noir phenomenon, but very few noirs actually feature that storyline. But though this movie starts out with that prototypical situation, it quickly takes several smart turns. Too often, noirs create a bad situation and then they just twist the knife for 90 minutes. Not this one. Every ten minutes, everything changes. The tension doesn’t just build, it twists itself into knots.
  2. The movie is devilishly post-modern. Totter obsessively goes to the movies and then sits at an L.A. pharmacy counter trying to get picked up just like Lana Turner. Basehart’s friend gives him the idea that everyone in the true-crime pulps gets away with murder. As for Basehart himself, we know he’s a movie star, but he doesn’t look like one at first, hidden behind glasses and lame hair. Then he transforms himself into the star we expected to see—by flipping through a magazine and re-naming himself after a movie star! This is a movie where people act like they’re in a movie because they want to act like they're in a movie.
  3. It’s so strange to see future a-lister Cyd Charisse billed behind Audrey Totter. Totter was the poor man’s Gloria Grahame. In her most legendary noir, The Set-Up, Totter seems like a poor substitute, but she was stuck playing a good girl there. It turns out that all she needed was a chance to be bad—very bad! She’s great here, imbuing what could have just been a sexist stereotype with righteous self-confidence.
  4. The movie is filled with outrageously bold symbolism. Each character has their own symbol: Basehart has his glasses. Sullivan's detective has his rubber-band, always testing the tension. Totter has her doll. Charisse has the little man she makes. The wife’s lover even carries a pitchfork! We do a double-take until we realize that the filmmakers are having a laugh with us.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: The most famous of the blacklisted noir filmmakers was Abraham Polonsky, who wrote Body and Soul and directed Force of Evil. Like this one, those films weren’t overtly political, but had enough subversive smarts bubbling under the surface to scare the status quo.

How Available Is It?: It’s available from Netflix on one of those 2-movies-on-one-dvd deals, so you would assume that it’s feature-free, right? You’d be wrong. It’s got a commentary by top noir scholars Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward along with Totter herself. There’s even a well-made little featurette.

Today's Post Was Brought To You By: Red Canvas!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Underrated Movie #26: For a Few Dollars More

Title: For A Few Dollars More
Year: 1965
Director: Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in America)
Writers: Sergio Leone, Fulvio Morsella, and Luciano Vincenzoni
Stars: Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven), Lee Van Cleef (High Noon), Gian Maria Volante (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion)

The Story: In a nightmarish version of the Old West, two tough bounty hunters gradually converge on the same target. They agree to work together, but keep a wary eye on each other as well.

How it Came to be Underrated: The first and last movies in Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, are both household names, even to people who have never seen a western. This middle film is far less famous, but it’s even better than Fistful and almost as great as GBU.

Why It’s Great:

  1. The marketing people called Eastwood the “man with no name”, but he actually has a different name in each film ("Joe", "Manco", and "Blondie", respectively), so they can’t be the same character. Furthermore, the final film, set during the Civil War, clearly takes place before the other two. But there is a nevertheless a thematic progression, as we follow Eastwood’s reluctant growth from animal to man. The heart of that transition takes place in this film, where Eastwood is quietly transformed by his exposure to Van Cleef’s tragic hero, the only justified man in the entire trilogy.
  2. Fistful was a low-budget lark, with a story lifted from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. This movie, on other hand, is the first in which Leone is in control of every thought, every frame, every expression, establishing a total mastery of his art. Fistful had gleefully toyed with audience’s idea of the Western in a satirical way. This film is less interested in destroying our genre expectations and more interested in creating and then subverting its own system of iconography.
  3. Nowhere was that more evident than in the casting. Dollars had proven that Eastwood would be a star, but he was nice enough to come back overseas and shoot another, only to discover that this time his brutal character would be unfavorably contrasted with another hero. And who would play this hero? A cruel-eyed character actor who had previously played nothing but villains, Lee Van Cleef. Luckily, Eastwood thought this was a great idea. It was a risky decision that paid off for everybody, putting Leone, Eastwood and Van Cleef all on the path to true greatness.
  4. My first week at film school, we were all supposed to bring in an example of a great scene. The school favored oblique, austere filmmaking and most of the examples were along those lines. I brought in the scene where Eastwood meets Van Cleef, which couldn’t possibly have more vim, vigor or virulence. I came to suspect that I wouldn’t fit in. It’s a simple, nearly silent sequence of two men shooting the hell out of each other’s hats, and it’s pretty much my definition of pure cinema.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Leone’s A Fistful of Dynamite, a.k.a. Duck, You Sucker is also underrated. He followed up this trilogy with the great stand-alone epic Once Upon a Time in the West.

How Available Is It?: It’s on dvd in bare bones and deluxe editions.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: For All The Marbles!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Underrated Movie #25: Safety Last

Title: Safety Last
Year: 1923
Directors: Fred Newmayer and Sam Taylor
Writers: Hal Roach, Sam Taylor and Tim Whelan
Stars: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother

The Story: A lowly department store clerk befriends a “human fly” who can climb any building. Trying to impress his girl and his boss, the clerk concocts a switcheroo to make it look like he's the one climbing the building. Needless to say, after a series of mix-ups, he really has to go through with it.

How it Came to be Underrated: Even Lloyd’s biggest fans call him “the Third Genius” still ranking him behind Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, the two greatest silent clowns. He simply didn’t fit the “genius” role very well— his films were just as funny, but he didn’t have the tortured temperament of those two, so he didn’t seem like a genius. To this day, his movies are underseen, even by fans of silent comedy (though everybody has seen the famous clock still)

Why It’s Great:

  1. This movie is almost a century old, but audiences still go absolutely crazy for it. What makes it reach out across time and grab you by the throat is the bravura how-did-they-DO-that stuntwork. It gets more thrilling every year, because it seems less and likely that they could have created such thoroughly convincing images without any of our modern tricks. (The solution? The special effects haven’t aged because there are no processed shots, they built a series of two-story high facades on higher and higher rooftops, all showing the actual street far below. And for long shots, they hired an actual “human fly”)
  2. Chaplin and Keaton played extraordinary sad sacks who were burdened by life’s troubles until they found a burst of superhuman cleverness that allowed them to walk on air. This movie shows how different Lloyd was. No movie makes you feel the effect of gravity more. Putting his character (named “Harold Lloyd”) through such a situation was all the more perilous, because he’d thoroughly convinced us that he couldn’t do anything we couldn’t do.
  3. The movie is a zippy 72 mintues, but it still takes all the time it needs getting Lloyd into this outlandish situation. Lloyd the everyman filmmaker invented the “preview” process, where he would relentlessly screen workprints before fresh audiences. Through that process, he kept fleshing out the beginning until he’d thoroughly convinced the audience that he would and could do this if he absolutely had to.
  4. And just when you think you can’t get any more amazed, you discover the dangers of pre-union Hollywood: Lloyd is doing all this while wearing a disguised kid glove to cover up the fact that he had blown off a thumb and finger while playing with a prop bomb a few years earlier. Strother’s character was hastily re-named “Limpy” because he had fallen off a building and broken his leg just before he began shooting. And then they both climbed the building on camera.

Underrated Compared To: the masterpieces of Chaplin and Keaton, like City Lights or The General, but everybody should watch those too.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: I’ve never seen a Lloyd movie I didn’t like. Speedy might be even better than this one. The Freshman is great, too.

How Available Is It?: It’s available on dvd through Netflix, but not by name—you have to order the Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection Volume 1. It’s well restored and it has an informative and lively commentary by Leonard Maltin and Richard Correll.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Here’s Your Bill!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Underrated Movie #24: Defending Your Life

Title: Defending Your Life
Year: 1990
Director: Albert Brooks (Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America)
Writer: Albert Brooks
Stars: Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn

The Story: A middle-aged schlub gets hit by a bus and finds himself in a Disneyland-like afterlife, where he’s put on trial to defend his long record of bad decisions.

How it Came to be Underrated: Like Lost in America, this was another Brooks film that didn’t find a find much of an audience outside of his regular fans.

Why It’s (almost) Great:

  1. This was Brooks’s first movie without his long-time co-writer Monica Goodman, and it's less lively than his first three. Seeing it again, I found it a little pokey, but it’s wonderfully pleasant and thought-provoking. In the end, it’s a good movie based on a great idea.
  2. Especially after re-watching Doubt, it was great to see Streep getting a rare chance to be funny and sexy. She’s just as good at playing a big ball of sunshine as she is being a black hole of judgment.
  3. Brooks gives some of the best dialogue to Rip Torn’s glad-handing afterlife defense attorney. Brooks asks, “So I’m on trial for being afraid?” Torn responds, “First of all, I don’t like to call it a trial. Second of all, yes.” Later, he helpfully tries to reassure Brooks: “You wouldn’t understand. Oh, I don’t mean that as an insult, I mean it literally.”
  4. What powers the movie is the underlying guilt of modern-day consumer-driven society. Brooks fears that one day he’ll finally have to ask himself the most dreadful question of all: “Am I just a boob?” How could we ever justify our mundane existence? We know we’re supposed to care about justice, but we really just care about going to the Sizzler.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Streep didn’t get another chance to be this relaxed until Adaptation. Brooks doesn’t just write and direct, he’s also acted in some great movies for other directors, such as Broadcast News.

How Available Is It?: The Watch Instantly version is unfortunately “pan n’ scan”. I don’t know about the dvd.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Hey, Kids—Nightmare Time!

(Thanks to Progressive Ruin)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Underrated Movie #23: Never Cry Wolf

Title: Never Cry Wolf
Year: 1983
Director: Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion)
Writers: Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), Sam Hamm (Batman), and Richard Kletter

Stars: Charles Martin Smith (American Graffiti), Brian Dennehy (Cocoon), Zachary Ittimangnaq

The Story: A fictionalized version of the real adventures of naturalist Farley Mowat, who traveled alone to the arctic wilderness in order to determine if wolf packs were really killing off Canada’s caribou herds, or if something more sinister was going on.

How it Came to be Underrated: As the public’s taste for kids’ movies got more saccharine, Ballard lost his audience and his early hits faded from memory.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This was a Disney movie, and it was a big hit with kids, so it’s kind of shocking how much beer and male nudity it has. You might get arrested for foisting this on kids today, and that’s a shame, because there’s no better movie for showing kids (and, for that matter, adults) the thrill of scientific detective work and the heartbreak of man’s callousness toward our own biosphere.
  2. Smith quickly discovers that his plan to hide and observe the wolves will never work, because they know his every move. Instead, he drags cans around to reveal himself as much as possible. It turns out that the only way to get to know wolves is to commune with them. This culminates in a scene that I absolutely loved in the theater as an eight-year-old boy: a literal pissing contest, as wolf and man compete to see who can mark the most territory. The series of a-ha moments that allow Smith to uncover and prove the truth become downright thrilling as we come to understand his process.
  3. The more that Hollywood learns to do with special effects, the harder it is to justify going to the trouble and expense of shooting the real thing. I can’t imagine how terrible this film would be today with CGI wolves. Back then, the only way to make a film like this was to go out there, hunker down for the winter and wait for the animals to do something interesting on camera. Ballard understood Mowat so well because he had to replicate his process in order to make the movie.
  4. In the end, this film is all about the stunning visuals. Ballard is the son of the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard (The Wild Bunch) so he knew how to work with his own cinematographer, Hiro Narita, to craft one of the most poetic films ever shot.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: You have to go back to the silent era of The Gold Rush and Nanook of the North to find earlier movies this satisfying about life above the arctic circle. Koyaanisqatsi was another beautiful and thought-provoking early ‘80s film about ecological imbalance.

How Available Is It?: It’s on dvd and it shows up regularly on Turner Classic Movies, where I re-discovered it.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Protect Your Children (with DDT-soaked wallpaper)!

(Thanks to Boing Boing)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Underrated Movie #22: Electra Glide in Blue

Title: Electra Glide in Blue
Year: 1973
Director: James William Guerico
Writers: Robert Boris, from a story by Boris and Rupert Hitzig
Stars: Robert Blake (In Cold Blood), Billy Green Bush, Mitchell Ryan, Jeannine Riley

The Story: An ostracized Arizona motorcycle cop, tired of hassling hippies on the highways, dreams of becoming a homicide detective. When he calls attention to a faked suicide, he thinks he's gotten his chance.

How it Came to be Underrated: The title sounds like porn, but the plot description sounded reactionary at the time. The movie is neither, but Guerico, who had already made his money as a hippie music producer, was happy to let everybody think the wrong thing. Once the producers realized that this was too smart to be a drive-in movie, they sent it over to Cannes, where it got booed off the screen for being too pro-cop. In other words, the movie got caught in the same double-bind as Blake’s character, which proved Guerico’s point the hard way.

Why It’s Great:

  1. The movie begins with Blake ticketing an L.A. detective passing through Arizona, oblivious to the unwritten rule that says he’s supposed to let this one go. Then he tickets a fellow vet, refusing to cut him a break. But it was the next scene that got all the attention: At the police shooting range, Blake practices by plugging a picture of the guys from Easy Rider full of holes. Who is this guy? It’s a tough, unflinching portrayal of someone who’s not a paragon of any one virtue, but rather a speed-bump being worn down by the wheels of change.
  2. Guerico gave up his own salary to hire great cinematographer Conrad Hall (Cool Hand Luke, Fat City), but then he shocked Hall by saying that he wanted to make this a modern version of John Ford’s The Searchers, which had exactly the kind of technicolor lyricism that Hall had led a revolt against. Guerico’s father had been a projectionist who showed Ford movies over and over when the theater was closed. Eventually, he won Hall over and together they turned this into a stunning widescreen fable about closed minds on the open road.
  3. But while it has one foot in the past, it was also on the cutting edge for its time. What other cop movie would show a straight police officer finding fetishistic joy in strapping on his leathers? This was John Ford by way of Kenneth Anger.
  4. This movie also deserves a lot of credit for giving two of the last good roles to classic character actors Royal Dano (The Red Badge of Courage) and Elisha Cook, Jr. (The Maltese Falcon). They get a fine send off.

Underrated Compared To: This movie has shades of Dirty Harry and Taxi Driver, both of which became cultural phenomena, but I say it's better than either one.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Another great story about working stiffs frozen out of the cultural progress of the ‘70s was Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar.

How Available Is It?: On dvd only, with a thoughtful intro and commentary by Guerico.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Flower Love!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Underrated Movie #21: Simple Men

Title: Simple Men
Year: 1990
Director: Hal Hartley (The Unbelievable Truth, Henry Fool)
Writer: Hal Hartley
Stars: Robert Burke (Rescue Me), William Sage (Precious), Karen Sillas (What Happened Was…), Elina Lowensohn (Amateur), Martin Donavan (Trust)

The Story: A beloved-shortstop-turned-‘60s-radical-terrorist has disappeared from a prison hospital. His two sons, one a college student, the other a petty crook, search for him. When the search bogs down in a small Long Island town, they make some new friends and question their goals.

How it Came to be Underrated: There was a whole generation of lo-fi filmmakers who emerged during an exciting era that coincided with the rise of Sundance. A few, like Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater slowly found their way to the mainstream but too many, such as Hartley, Atom Egoyan, and the previously mentioned Whit Stillman, have faded away. (Of that generation, only Jim Jarmusch seems to have found a steady niche outside the mainstream alongside previous indie icons like Woody Allen, David Lynch and John Sayles)

Why It’s Great:

  1. People always do a little bit of a double-take when they start watching a Hartley film. They wonder, “Uh, isn’t this acting bad? Isn’t this cinematography flat?” But then you adapt to his peculiar rhythm. The performances and compositions have both been turned down a notch to create some distance between the viewer and the movie, so that we’ll be aware of our own reaction and response. This is art as artifact- Harley wants to see if we’ll still like the object if we’re aware that it’s an object. Some viewers never warm to his style, but I find it endearing and honest, like a good deadpan comedian.
  2. They say that bad screenwriters write complicated stories about simple people, while good screenwriters write simple stories about complicated people. Despite what the title says, this story is one of the latter. The brothers are each trying to formulate personal manifestos, like their father did, but instead they keep learning how hard it is to know anything.
  3. Each actor here got a few bites at movie and TV stardom after this, but none of them broke big. I was sure that Karen Sillas would be a star, and I still love to see her pop up in TV guest spots. She’s so flinty.
  4. Though he's hardly the good guy, little bits of the Burke's armchair philosophy have stayed with me. His mother asks, “Is this dirty money?” He responds with a chuckle: “All money is dirty money, mom.” Or, to his brother: “I just fuck with the law. Dad fucked with the government.” “It’s the same thing” “It’s different. The government doesn’t have to obey the law.”

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Hartley’s first half-dozen or so movies are all pretty great. My favorite was actually an hour-long film he made for PBS called Surviving Desire.

How Available Is It?: On dvd and Watch Instantly

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Beautiful, Glittering Mottoes Which the Public Likes So Well!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Comics I Love Even Though I've Only Seen the Covers #3: Mystic

Challenge: One of these covers contains a hidden metaphor for the existential dread of Americans in the 1950s. Can you guess which one?

Answer: Nope, no subtext here, folks-- everything's fine!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Underrated Movie #20: Reprise

The pyrrhic conclusion of Recent Movies Week!

Title: Reprise
Year: 2006
Director: Joachim Trier
Writers: Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt
Stars: Espen Klouman-Høiner, Anders Danielsen Lie, Viktoria Winge

The Story: Post-Modern/Intimate/Exuberant/Dark Comedy/Drama about two young first-time novelists dealing with successes and setbacks in modern-day Oslo.

How it Came to be Underrated: Even as recently as fifteen years ago, this movie would have become a cult-phenomenon (at least in NYC), but too many over-hyped recent European directors failed to connect with audiences, and it’s hard to get people excited anymore.

Why It’s Great:

  1. The film can be very funny and also very serious, but it doesn’t confuse "serious" with "leaden". In fact, it’s exhilarating throughout. Watching it, you can believe that the French New Wave is alive and well and living in Norway.
  2. Re-watching this, I was surprised to realize some of its tricks were borrowed by (500) Days of Summer, which was less successful and far less ambitious, but still a lot of fun. Both movies point to the same sad conclusion: The defining characteristic of our unremarkable generation is the inability to bridge the gap between our fantasy lives and our reality.
  3. Trier gets it. Too many arthouse directors have begun to act as if the accumulated language of filmmaking is a burden around their necks. The most important question for a director to ask him-or-herself is “If I cut here, what will the audience expect to happen next, and how can I play with that expectation?” Directing is the art of the reversal. But many modern directors have it gotten it backwards. They dismiss the audience’s tingling of expectation as a craving for cliché. They time their cuts to dampen expectation instead of increasing it. No expectation = no reversal = nobody cares.
  4. Yes, it’s Cockeyed Caravan’s first foreign language movie! I do watch them and I do love them. So why haven’t I covered any so far? If I may be lame for a moment, a part of it is practical—I do the write-ups while I re-watch the movies. And if they’re speaking Norweigan, I can’t follow along. I vow to solve this problem by learning Norweigan, and every other language that has produced an underrated film. Look for updates as this project progresses.

Underrated Compared To: those super-bleak European films that the Village Voice still goes crazy for.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: There was a recent French film called Poison Friends that started with a very similar premise, then went in a more of a thriller-ish direction, then veered back toward character-based drama. I was a fan.

How Available Is It?: On dvd and Watch Instantly.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Not Again!