Hey everybody, remember Special Guest Picks? Well here’s a straggler. A mere six months after I solicited some special people for recommendations, I got this reply from the estimable Luke O’Brien, who occasionally comments here under the name Ithadeo. Luke and I helped run the film society in college. I called him Luko. He called me Coco. I never knew why. Here's Luke:
I like how Matt not only looks at undiscovered or overlooked films, but also at why we might have missed these films. In this brief guest shot, I want to look at movies that I think have each been pushed into the periphery by a specific film:
The movie opens with a man cast in shadows to make his identity “mysterious” confessing the details of his lurid misadventure to a priest. (It’s the entertaining ridiculousness of Old Hollywood that one of the most distinct voices in Hollywood is giving the monologue.) He recounts his tale of trouble with the hard-broiled dialog you’d expect in radio play, taking us back to a classic set of 1940s tropes: the reluctant war hero, the club dame who can’t quite be trusted, multiple acts of violence by unseen assailants and a delicious unraveling at the end. Falling so closely on the heels of his classic turn as Marlowe (and smoldering chemistry with Bacall), Bogart’s more paternal, less hip role is a perfect fit for John Cromwell’s melodramatic sensibilities. Cromwell’s Of Human Bondage and Lord Fauntleroy are classic dramas and he likes to squeeze all he can out of the moments of anguish on screen – and these moments of anguish are what cements the dark elements of a noir like this.
2) Truly, Madly, Deeply
Long Dark Shadow It Can't Escape: Ghost
In 1990, two movies came out with a woman being revisited by her dearly departed husband but the wrong one became really famous. I’ll be careful here not to slam Zucker’s movie which manages to comically wed FX, 1940s ghost romance clichés and a very simple suspense film thrills. You feel good at the end of Ghost - wrongs are righted, you see the bright lights of heaven, and bask in the glow of after-life sex. But it’s all voyeurism – enjoying some other person’s crazy ride. Minghella’s film asks us for more – it asks us for empathy. Nina doesn’t cry pretty tears – she has a breakdown. She cries a lot. Her job is harder. Her house is still falling apart except now there’s no one to share the problems with. Even when Jamie returns it only makes it harder for her to understand how she’s supposed to live her life with a ghost (especially the boring ghosts who have invaded her life). And when a possible new romance comes along we understand how conflicted Nina is and we follow her as she genuinely comes to grips with her grief.
Some Danish filmmakers in the 1990s led a very interesting film movement directed at making movies that stripped away a lot of the ways directors created reality on-screen. The people who were led to embrace this style felt that it was a more honest way of creating movies, so it’s no surprise that many of the stories involved taboo subjects like family secrets (Celebration, Mifune) and dysfunctional behavior (The Idiots, Julien Donkey-Boy). The movies are often great, but not usually pleasant. So a movie like Italian for Beginners gets easily lost in its associations with this austere school of cinema, which is a shame, because it’s a movie that Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers should be forced to watch on a loop. The plot is simple enough: The progressive new priest in a small Danish village joins the lovelorn singles in town taking an Italian class to add some adventure to their mundane lives. All of the small elements that define the romantic comedy are in place, but the Dogme style (and maybe Danish sensibilities) kill the cliché with realistic and deeply muted performances.
4) Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Long Dark Shadow It Can't Escape: Oldboy
Most people who discover Park Chan-Wook become fans of Oldboy. It makes sense that people fall in love with that movie – the ending is so jaw-dropping and the build up to the revelations is so intimate that the shocking acts of violence at the end aren’t the porn-violence you find in a lot of Korean horror films (or any Eli Roth movie). Revisiting the director, people long to repeat the mind-bending way that film unravels. The first film in his trilogy, however, presents a very different meditation on vengeance, one where the motivations of the people is never unclear. A deaf-mute factory worker searches for a way to provide his sister with a kidney transplant. When he’s laid off, he tries to use a black market kidney exchange. When that goes horribly awry, his leftist girlfriend convinces him that he should kidnap a different factory owner’s son to raise the money he needs. You know from every terrible idea’s outset that things aren’t going to end well. All of the movies take us to a point where we see vengeance as pointless. But here all of the characters have selfless motivations. This movie makes us interested in what can drive people to feel so wronged that they try to exact vengeance and sad to see the toll it takes on all of them.
Luke O'Brien works for a privately held movie database . His day job just supports his avocation: answering people's questions about what to put next in their Netflix queue. If you need help pairing a bad movie with a good bourbon, he's happy to help.