Hey everybody, this week it’s another two-timer (there’s gotta be a better way of saying that): Luke O’Brien. Luke actually withdrew an earlier version of this because he decided that one of his movies wasn’t underrated enough. Nobody could say that about his final list. Some of Luke’s fellow Special Guests run a podcast called The Flophouse and this is the first time we’ve had a movie that got razzed there before it got praised here. Can you spot it? Bravo to Luke for sticking his neck out for some truly unappreciated movies. Take it away, Luke-O…
Last time I talked about movies people may have missed because of a more prominent film released by the same director or at the same time. Today, I want to talk about movies that get in their own way. Sometimes the premise is the problem. Without seeing a movie, there is no way you can imagine that what was described to you could be worth two hours of your life. Even when your friend who loves a good movie tells you what it’s about, you can’t bear to sit down and watch it. Here are a few movies actual people I know have enjoyed despite their initial reaction when they heard the movie’s two second elevator pitch:
1) Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog) (seen above)
Pitch: A Glasgow gangster defends his turf with the aid of Danny, a young man he raised as his attack dog. When an accident leads Danny away from his master and into the care of a blind piano tuner who helps reconnect with his humanity, a reckoning with his “master” is due.
There is nothing right with the premise of this film. It sounds not only like a purposeless action movie, it sounds like a really dumb purposeless action movie. But instead of shying away from the absurdity, Luc Besson embraces it. He populates his Scotland with characters that are so outrageously drawn, they almost become allegorical figures for the best and worst of humanity.
Bob Hoskins’s scenery chewing loan shark, who barks every line with terrorizing comedy, sets the tone for everyone else by giving them a villain to live up to. Jet Li, in the only acting performance of his I find noteworthy, plays Danny with a convincing child-like fear and - when unleashed - bestial anger. When Morgan Freeman shows up as the sage-like piano tuner living with his saintly daughter-in-law, Kerry Condon, you can’t really think twice about if they seem “real.” Every actor completely believes their own character’s strangeness, playing off of one another as if all of this was natural instead of trying to keep us tied to plausibility.
And, of course, part of the joy in this movie comes from the gorgeously engrossing action sequences. Yuen Woo Ping creates ferociously acrobatic fight scenes that Besson films from a dizzying variety of angles and perspectives. All of the action is set to a wildly underrated, pulse-pounding score by Massive Attack. This is the rare movie that passed my most critical test: By the time the opening of the film was done, I hadn’t even touched my popcorn.
Pitch: Ten-year-old Michele discovers a boy close to his age, Filippo, chained up in a hole dug into a reclusive part of the fields near his home and grows curious about why the boy is there.
“Chained up boy” ends most of my pleas for people to watch this film. It’s difficult to ever recommend a movie where bad things happen to kids. Even as a single element of a movie, too many people I know are ruined by those moments.
But these rare movies come along where there is no other way that a story can be told. Gabriele Salvatores creates a believable Southern Italy from the 1970s, when the country was rampant with crime. He fills the screen not only with the gorgeous countryside, but also with kids running around, not doing much more than being kids. When Michele discovers Filippo, he reacts like many kids would react – with disbelief and morbid curiosity. (It should also be noted how rare this is, since American child actors - in general - are horrible. They can ruin a scene twice as fast as bad dialog. And our first impulse should rightly be to avoid any movie that uses them extensively.)
If he was an adult we would never accept the blithe way everyone reacts when Michele begins – cautiously – to tell people what he’s discovered, but we can believe a child would be bullied into silence and dismissed. Michele’s inability to understand why this has happened to Filippo, and why no one is helping him, drives the movie forward. As he begins to unravel why Filippo is there and who is keeping him locked up, he begins to understand his family and community for the first time.
Pitch: Kevin Costner plays a relapsing serial killer who gets blackmailed by a peeping tom (Dane Cook) into taking him along on his next murder; Demi Moore plays the detective who is hot on their trail.
Sometimes the cast alone is a reason you know you want to stay away, and on paper this cast couldn’t look any worse. The stars of Good Luck Chuck, Passion of the Mind, and The Postman? Not an auspicious start. This movie reeks of the sad opportunism that Hollywood uses to draw ticket sales to a terrible movie by overloading it with big name stars. But this movie is better than that. It’s a great reflection on identity, set in a world of pulpy deliciousness. I’ve seen it several times, and I always have a feeling I can only describe as the opposite of that sucker punch I felt when I walked out of Pacino and Deniro’s spectacularly bad Righteous Kill.
The movie opens with disembodied voices – an aww-shucks Iowan intonation breathily saying the serenity prayer while a growling voice interrupts with objections. We meet the two characters Mr. Brooks is split into: Costner’s Earl, the cautious family man who is using a 12 step program to try to control his darker impulses, and Marshall, giddily played by William Hurt, who acts as the devil on his shoulder, encouraging him to do very bad things.
This gives us a clear path for a modern interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde, but one where Dr. Jekyll is considerably less innocent and Hyde a lot more entertaining. There is no transition into Mr. Brooks’s head – Marshall and Earl have conversations in the middle of a scene with some other character who notices nothing – and the chemistry between Costner and Hurt makes these scenes come alive.
There are too many plot threads (this is still a pulpy thriller full of big improbable jumps) but they all reflect these struggles with our darker selves: Cook’s desperate desire to get in touch with something more Hyde-like piteously taken in by Brooks, Moore’s cop whose contentious divorce and obsession with several killers constantly threatens her Jekyllian nature, and finally Brooks’s daughter, an excellent Danielle Pannabaker, who comes home early from school and becomes the crux of many of Brooks’s fears about how his nature may have affected his family.
Pitch: A French farce that follows a pathologically helpful waiter who interrupts a man who is trying to hang himself, and then goes to outrageous extremes to help the man get his life back on track.
“It’s a French farce about…” is about as far as this pitch gets. Despite the fact that a huge number of our biggest box office comedies are watered down versions of French originals (including the recent Dinner for Schmucks which is a sad toothless version of Le Diner de Cons), there’s still a pretty strong bias against comedies you have to read, especially by people whose exposure to French comedy is the old saw that all of France thinks Jerry Lewis is still funny. Even my film-loving friends, who would rave about Tati, grumble about how too many of their movies are like Les Bronzes, or one of the other garishly over-the-top comedies. But this movie is more than where it is from. So I need to be clear here: I’m telling you about this movie so you can see it and enjoy it before it’s remade with Paul Rudd and Jason Segel.
This story stands out to me for how it combines the elements of farce, so popular in their better comedies, with a more benevolent view of humanity. After saving his new friend from hanging, our waiter feels responsible for him. He discovers that the inconsolable man recently broke up with his girlfriend and has no interest in going on without his love. Undaunted by the man’s protestations (and further attempts to take his own life), the waiter tries to help the man repair his life and reconcile with his ex.
All of this, of course, has to be done before the suicidal mope costs him his job and his girlfriend. Every good turn is met with resistance and ridiculous failure. That’s normal for a farce. The challenge is getting us to still care about the guys we know are struggling to succeed. Daniel Auteuil loves the characters, and has specialized in creating people you would actively root against (his cheating executive in Le Doublure) or pity (his boorish accountant in Le Placard). But it’s unusual for a story to be built on someone whose most significant personality flaw is excessive kindness. And when the waiter begins to consider betraying his new friend when he sees how beautiful his ex is, we get an earned sense of conflict that makes the story more compelling than the ridiculous set-up normally would.
Pitch: A painfully shy man’s “relationship” with a sex doll that he treats as a real person helps him stop isolating himself from the rest of the world.
This sounds like a soft core porn treatment of those classic 80s movies where inanimate objects come to life. (Zalman King’s Mannequin, maybe?) I don’t want to see that movie either. The actual movie is the opposite of what it sounds like. It’s devoid of sex, grounded, and even goes out of its way to show Lars’s discomfort with even being touched.
I found the movie light on the comedy that the goofy cover communicates. The movie is successful in part because Ryan Gosling does such a phenomenal job bringing Lars to life as someone with genuinely crippling shyness. But a real Lars is a sad portrait of someone with genuinely crippling shyness. It’s the portrait of someone who, as he begins to be openly emotional with those around him, is totally unprepared for how difficult feeling that much can be.
And while the emotionally stunted hermit is centerpiece, the movie, in the end, is hardly about him or his imagined paraplegic missionary girlfriend Bianca – although they are the catalysts for everything the follows. The film unfolds around how his brother and pregnant sister-in-law react to this news, how that affects how others treat Lars. And the story grows to encompass the entire community around them – participating in, or resisting, Lars’s increasingly elaborate delusion. The film is, as many great stories are, about how we treat people. And not much is more important than that.
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.