Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #9

Hello? Anybody still in town? At least I know that the Canadians have no excuses—your Thanksgiving was weeks ago! If you can hear me, here’s a Special Guest Column from Matt Carman. I recently had a piece in the ‘zine run by Matt and his significant other Kseniya, so they’re returning the favor with their underrated picks. This week it’s Matt’s turn:

Streets of Fire (1984)
Directed by: Walter Hill
Written by: Larry Gross and Walter Hill

Streets of Fire is what would happen if the Max Fischer Players adapted director Walter Hill’s The Warriors into a musical. The sets are repetitive and simple (apparently every block in Hill’s dream city sits under an elevated train track with a diner on the corner), shootouts come with cartoonishly large explosions, and pretty much everyone is white.

But it’s also the closest we’ve got to a Han Solo rock opera, if you’d be into that sort of thing. Gunny drifter Michael Paré reluctantly signs up to save smooth-cheeked rock star Diane Lane from shirtless-in-rubber-fireman’s-pants Willem Dafoe. Along the way Paré will rescue a lost doo-wop group, get into a crunchy sledgehammer duel, and shoot first in every cantina in town. This is an unbridled story about young passion, young adventure, and young Dafoe, whose facial crags have apparently not changed since 1984.

If the songs behind Lane’s lip-synched performances sound like those of a Lady Meatloaf, it’s because they are; Jim Steinman, writer of most Loaf hits, penned and arranged many of the tunes for the film. These songs are incredibly, infectiously good, and the concert scenes showcasing them are big, over-the-top productions. For evidence, check out the clips of “Nowhere Fast” and “Tonight is What it Means to be Young.” Then try to keep from playing them again.

TiMER (2009)
Written and Directed by: Jac Schaeffer

As author Kevin Wilson once said of his short stories, many of which bend reality in tiny ways, “When you present something strange and perhaps not possible, if you don’t blink, if you simply incorporate it into the story without making too much of a show about it, it will have a better chance of being accepted by the reader.”

TiMER writer-director Jac Schaeffer seems to agree with this principle. At the heart of the story is an implant device, a magical technology which counts down to the moment at which you will (and it is a definite, infallible will) meet your soul mate. The setup seems ripe for explanations and arguments, but Schaeffer smartly avoids any potential sci-fi navel-gazing to focus on the effects this technology has on Oona and her small, perfect-match-minded circle. It’s not about how, but what then.

The film’s neutral color palette and soft, even lighting can sometimes feel like a toothpaste ad. But underneath the gauzy visuals are smart performances and naturally witty dialogue, and a relieving refusal to slide in to the usual boy-meets-girl tropes. Without driving it in too much, the characters’ unease with the device reflects our increasingly complicated struggle to decide how much knowledge is too much. When Oona’s teenage brother’s alarm sounds, his disappointment is clear; he won’t get to meet girls, make mistakes, and eventually find the right one (or not). His road to “happiness” is standing five feet away, and the device is pushing him to take the sure thing over the exciting unknown. TiMER eliminates the need to question compatibility, and in doing so, shows how much faith it can take for two people to commit to each other in the real world.

Two Documentaries “About” The Past:
Billy the Kid (2007) Directed by: Jennifer Venditti
Stevie (2002) Directed by: Steve James

It’s easy for a documentary to manufacture nostalgia – who doesn’t love feeling warm and fuzzy about the past? – but it’s rare to see an honest depiction of all the halting uneasiness between the memories. Billy is a 15-year-old karate student and heavy metal fan stumbling through a year of high school in rural Maine. He’s a cracked genius with an accidental knack for brilliant one-liners (“Years of loneliness have been murder,” he says to a group of men clapping outside a diner after they witness his first kiss). Adults and younger kids are generally impressed and a little confused by his unfiltered honesty and forwardness, while his peers unfailingly refuse to understand him.

Director Jennifer Venditti first met Billy while casting teenage extras for a short film. Unable to forget him, she later came back to chronicle his ups and downs and frank philosophies. It’s easy to see why he stuck in her head. Billy somehow manages to make every moment feel simultaneously uncomfortable and charming. Even his most mundane exchanges seem to say something about the ways we all relate to each other. Drama may be life with the dull bits cut out, but in Billy the Kid the “dull” bits are the most dramatic.

In Stevie, director Steve James decides to revisit his past following the release of his hugely successful Hoop Dreams. He returns to rural Illinois to check in on the titular Stevie, to whom James had been a Big Brother in his college years. But the warm reunion fades as we learn about adult Stevie’s emotional, mental, and criminal problems, and witness his tense moments with everyone who tries to reach out to him.

James remains involved even as Stevie’s troubles become darker and more disturbing, and the tone of Stevie changes along with them. James struggles, often on screen, to justify his desire to help someone whom he once loved but no longer likes. At times, Stevie comes off as a real-life (though much less sexually charged) version of Oz’s Chris Keller – in spite of his awfulness, we want him to win, and then we feel guilty for wanting that. Though it begins as an experiment in rekindling relationships and revisiting the good times, Stevie ends up making a case for leaving the past alone.

Step Up 3D (2010)
Directed by: Jon Chu
Written by: Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer

Even (or especially) if you aren’t into dance, the choreography in Step Up 3D is often mind-blowing. This film also makes the strongest case I’ve seen for the recent wave of 3D films – while the technique is clumsily shoehorned into most movies, here it’s essential. 3D requires that we clearly see objects on various planes, so director Jon Chu eschews the usual close-up/quit-cut style for wide angles and long takes, allowing us to actually see the dancers’ every impossible movement.

The centerpiece of the movie is a single-take routine in which the awkward Moose (Adam G. Sevani) and his lady friend goofily interact with everything and everyone on a New York City street, set to a remix of Fred Astaire’s “I Won’t Dance.” It’s one of many grin-inducing sequences in this celebration of collaboration, and the moment at which Step Up 3D transcends its sappy genre to become a surprising love letter to performance.

Matt Carman is a writer/photo-blogger/etc. living in Brooklyn. He and Kseniya Yarosh co-edit the biyearly essay collection “I Love Bad Movies” which you can get here. His secret is that he scours the VHS-for-sale shelves of every video and thrift store he can find looking for buried treasure, which usually mean anything with Ryan O'Neal or James Remar (who luckily is in almost everything).


lthadeo said...

This is a great list. Timer (available on Netflix streaming) was the rainy Sunday movie for me and it was the fist time being a Whedon acolyte felt like it had led me to a good movie (as opposed to, say "Simply Irresistible" and its magic lobster). Its also the only movie on the list that isn't deliciously bad or brutally painful. But I love those movies too. KUDOS!

Liz B said...

STREETS OF FIRE is one of my favorite movies. Glad to see it get some recognition!