Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #10

Long-time fans might remember our friend Dan McCoy from his piece way back in March. Now he comes along and swipes two movies I’d been meaning to do myself: (Can you guess which two? I’ll bet you can…)

California Split (1974)

Robert Altman is one of my favorite American directors, and this is in the upper tier of his work, but it’s under-seen and (as a result) under-loved, probably because it wasn’t available on DVD until 2004—and even that DVD is now out of print.

There’s not much in the way of traditional plot here – Elliott Gould plays a compulsive gambler who falls into an enabling/co-dependent friendship with George Segal, who is well on his way to a gambling problem of his own, and the film simply follows them on their relentless quest for more action. The screenplay (which writer Joseph Walsh originally developed with Steven Spielberg) somehow manages to be about the depressing subject of compulsive behavior, without being depressing itself. This is a comedy – albeit a cagey, bittersweet one – that drifts along on Altman’s overlapping dialogue (Wikipedia notes this was the first non-Cinerama movie to use 8-track stereo) and Elliott Gould’s charm (I think that cineastes sometimes overstate the quality of 1970s American film, but I love any time period that would allow Gould to be a movie star).

Lastly—and I’ll try not to offer spoilers—the movie finds a way to avoid the “compulsive gambler story” cliché of ending with the characters losing everything. The film plays the much more interesting, and realistic, trick of turning a traditionally “happy” ending into a sad one. Rumor has it that the film is out of print to clear the way for a new DVD release that will restore scenes that had to be altered or cut in the first version, due to music rights issues. Let’s hope it’s back in circulation soon.

Road Games (1981)

I rented this movie after seeing Not Quite Hollywood, the documentary about “Ozsploitation” films—exploitation movies that poured out of Australia in the 1970s and 80s. This is a much more restrained film than some of the gonzo visions catalogued in that doc, but it carries some of the disreputable charge that the best thrillers tend to pack.

Speaking of thrillers: why were they so great in the late 70s and early 80s, and are so terrible now? I can’t answer that question, but it may be because those films still followed the lessons of Hitchcock’s “ordinary man” thrillers (with an added dose of sex and violence courtesy of the MPAA ratings system), whereas modern thrillers prefer nonsensical twist endings.

Richard Franklin, the director of Road Games, certainly took his cues from Hitchcock (in fact, after this film he directed Psycho II, which—I’ll give it this—is just about as good as an unnecessary sequel to a masterpiece could hope to be). Road Games is essentially Rear Window made as a trucker film. Instead of a laid-up photographer watching neighbors through their apartment windows, our hero is a long-haul truck driver who spends his days talking to himself, or his pet dingo (like I said: Australian). As he drives, he spies on his fellow travelers, in their cars, and becomes convinced that one of them is the serial murderer who’s been terrorizing women along his route. Things get more complex when an attractive young hitchhiker he picked up goes missing, and the police become convinced he’s the one behind the killings.

With a charming (and young!) Stacy Keach as our hero, a fresh-faced Jamie Lee Curtis as the hitchhiker, stylish cinematography, a great sick joke ending, and the best Bolero-knock-off score in the world, Road Games is the Rear-Window-meets-Duel ozsploitstravaganza you didn’t know you needed.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

The Coen Brothers have such a devoted cult that it seems silly to proclaim any of their films underrated (unless you’re a contrarian championing Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers, in which case: you’re wrong). However, The Man Who Wasn’t There had the bad luck to come after O Brother, Where Art Thou? which was a bona fide phenomenon (albeit as much for its soundtrack as anything). It seems to have slipped through the cracks, even with Coen aficionados.

The outlines of the story are pure James M. Cain—Ed Crane, a barber, blackmails his wife’s lover to get funds to start his own business. (That the funds are to enter the newfangled field of “dry” cleaning just points up how small his dreams are.) When confronted, he ends up killing his rival, and gets away with it… except his wife is accused of the crime. However, while the outlines might be noir, the side touches—references to existential philosophy, war paranoia, and sci-fi/UFO imagery—create a larger tapestry of 1950’s cultural influences that build on one another, to distinct but ineffable effect. While it may be an ironic joke when Ed’s lawyer refers to him as the “modern man,” it’s also no more than the truth.

The film is beautifully acted—Billy Bob Thorton is amazing in his ability to be funnier the less he does. Listen to his hilariously uninflected reading of “I’m gonna take his hair and throw it out in the dirt. I wanna mingle it with common house dirt.” Frances McDormand’s unlovable traits somehow manage to make her all the more lovable. And Tony Shalhoub as the lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider makes you curse the film performances we’ve lost due to eighty seasons of “Monk”.

The Coens get a bad rap for being diagrammatic in their scripts and cold and unfeeling toward their characters. I don’t find either criticisms to be valid. The inclusion of the UFO theme in The Man Who Wasn’t There is the sort of touch that comes from screenwriters going with their gut, rather than what makes “sense,” and the film’s transcendent ending is almost as moving as Hi’s final monologue in Raising Arizona —albeit in a much sadder way.

Doomsday (2008)

Here’s where I lose my credibility… but who gives a damn about credibility anyway? Credibility is what happens when you stick to recommending stuff everyone agrees is “good.” If you’re an interesting person, you’re going to have some idiosyncratic tastes, and you should be willing to defend them. Doomsday got a bad rap for two reasons (1.) it was director Neil Marshall’s follow-up to The Descent, which was a remarkably disciplined horror film that built to the best monster freak-out this side of Aliens—an instant classic with genre fans, and (2.) critics and audiences complained that it was derivative of other films—most notably early John Carpenter and the Mad Max films.

To that I say (1.) I loved The Descent too, but this is a whole ‘nother thing. That was a claustrophobic slow-burn thriller and this is an everything-and-the-kitchen sink action extravaganza. (2.) The director has expressly stated this is an homage to those films. To criticize it for being derivative is missing the point. Yes, there’s been a deluge of recent movies referencing yesterday’s cheap thrills, and—at worst—those films can be curdled in irony. But Doomsday takes great joy in its derivativeness, borrowing but not winking, and always moving like a cannonball.

The plot is typical post-apocalyptic claptrap: a deadly virus has decimated Scotland, and the British government has walled off the entire country. When the virus resurfaces in London, decades later, Major Eden Sinclair is tasked with venturing into the land north of the wall where she must dodge lawless survivors and locate the one doctor who may have a cure for the disease.

The fun is in the way the film shifts from being a gloss on Escape From New York into a medieval bloodbath a la Excalibur, all before ending with a thrilling chase straight out of The Road Warrior. Some might call this “uneven” or “crazy” or even “crazy bananas.” Me, I like the way the film leaps from genre from genre, never getting dull—like any film that has a group of plague-survivor punks doing a choreographed dance number to The Fine Young Cannibals’ “Good Thing” ever risks being dull. Plus it has Rhona Mitra (best known for replacing Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld series and for being nude in Hollow Man) actually turning in a very credible (and sexy) action hero performance while strutting around in leather pants. Sometimes it’s the simple pleasures, y’know?

Dan McCoy has been going strong since his last appearance... His animated web series 9am Meeting got him a gig animating promos for Cinemax in his inimitable style, and it also won big at the New York Television Festival. Meanwhile, his funny podcast about the worst recent cinema, The Flophouse, is still going strong and he had a popular piece about zombies in Slate. The man is on fire.

1 comment:

MichaelB said...

California Split is on Netflicks streaming!

One of the movies I rememeber seeing with my dad on our usual Divorced Saturdays.