Rupert Pupkin Speaks: July 2013 ""

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Heather Drain

Heather Drain has been writing about fringe film and culture for almost ten years. She currently writes for Dangerous Minds, as well as her own site, Mondo Heather.

When you're a writer, there is always a tally in your head of all the places and publications you would like to be featured in. Let's call it the ambition-helper, perfect for those days when the valleys are outnumbering the peaks. One of mine has been this blog, Rupert Pupkin Speaks, for ages. A site that I've admired from afar, I always hoped, like a pie-eyed schoolgirl waiting by the phone, to get invited to contribute. Lucky for all of us (depending on your taste, of course) that day has finally arrived and all in the form of “Top Five Underrated Dramas.”

This has been an interesting challenge, since so many of the underrated films I adore tend to fit in these fairly nebulous categories. Is it a musical? Is it a horror film? Is is a western? Is it erotica? When it comes down to it, labels and I are usually on barely speaking terms. It doesn't help that when I hear the word “drama,” I tend to immediately think of weepy Oscar-style theatrics and films that have been deemed respectable by the mainstream press, two things that I have tended to stray from as a film writer.

However, thinking of some of the underrated films that I do hold near and dear, it hit me how at their very core, they are essentially dramas. Some of the films on my list were not initially promoted as such, since it is easier to go for the almighty dollar and hype the more punch-and-tickle aspects of a film.

Anyways, without further ado, here are my top five underrated dramas....

Criminally out-of-print, Larry Peerce's “The Incident” is one of those films that seers itself in your bones and makes you examine the darker side of our own human nature. Based on the 1963 DuPont Show of the Week, “Ride With Terror,” “The Incident” centers around Joe Ferrone (the masterful Tony Musante) and Artie (Martin Sheen, in his feature film debut), two thugs whom, after an evening of mugging and pool playing, decide to shake things up on the subway. The film takes its time to build up the assorted supporting characters, all of whom are various shades of dysfunctional, bordering on damaged. Naturally, this all comes to the surface as Joe and Artie peel each person down of their socially acceptable facades via mental harassment. The emotional hostage-situation inflicted on the subway goers is harrowing, with the A+ cast, that also includes Ruby Dee, Beau Bridges, Ed McMahon, Donna Mills, Brock Peters and Thelma Ritter, all making “The Incident” one of the most intense character studies committed to celluloid. On top of that, Musante's predatory-as-a-shark performance marked him as one of my favorites from the first ten minutes onward. The level of charismatic malice he displays is nearly unparalleled.

When most cult film fans hear the name Roger Watkins, they instantly think of his primal scream horror film “Last House on Dead End Street.” However, when I see Roger's name, I think of his real masterwork, 1987's “American Babylon.” A tone poem of small town melancholy disguised as an adult film, “American Babylon” stars Michael Gaunt as Thomas, a middle-aged man whose life-in-auto-pilot is shaken up by his friendship with Robert (Bobby Astyr), a neighbor who spends much of his free time procuring and watching grimy stag reels. As Thomas' wife grows more and more unstable, at one point blowing up the TV in their bedroom with a shotgun, he begins a passion-less affair with Robert's neglected wife, Joan (Tish Ambrose). What unfolds is that nothing is what it seems. Robert initially reads as mentally unstable, at one point walking in on Joan having sex with a friend while Thomas watches, all the while wearing a trash bag and acting completely non-plussed by the lurid action going on. Yet, the more he speaks, the more it becomes apparent that he has more on the ball than anyone else. “American Babylon” is a film that will eternally appear on any “best films” list I do. The pall of Americana and the little death of the self that happens when you realize that you have spent over half of your life going through the motions all inhabit this film. The performances, especially Gaunt's and Bobby Astyr, two of the most underrated actors from the last thirty years, are pitch-perfect. Ambrose is also good as the sad eyed Joan, not to mention Chelsea Blake as the cheese-sliding-off-the-cracker wife of Thomas. Unfortunately, like a lot of Watkins' work, it lies in out-of-print, bootleg/torrent limbo.

A lot of films have been made about the perils of the music industry, but few have stayed with me quite like 1980's “Breaking Glass.” (Slade's “Flame” is a very close second and is equally recommended.) In lieu of your stereotypical “artist is so hungry for fame that they will do whatever it takes to get ahead” plot line, “Breaking Glass” goes for something a little less hackneyed and as a result, more effective. Hazel O'Connor plays Kate, an idealistic punk singer. As her band starts to get more popular, she refuses to conform to the growing pressures put upon them from the label. The rabbit hole effect begins though, when a live gig turns nasty and violent. A demoralized Kate ends up caving and even when she tries to fight back towards the end, one of the record company reptiles forcibly injects her with drugs. Given some of the horror stories I've read about idealistic musicians getting eaten by the machine, going in healthy and strong and leaving addicted and death-riddled, the film feels fairly accurate. Hazel O'Connor is phenomenal in this and on top of doing all of her own singing, even wrote the lion's share of the lyrics. The rest of the cast is great too, with a pre-”Brazil” Jonathan Pryce as a sweet, junk-addicted saxophonist being a big stand out. “Breaking Glass” is available on DVD, though you may want to opt for the PAL version from the UK, since the American release, both on DVD and Blu Ray, omit the last ten minutes of the film.

Based on both director Boaz Davidson's childhood and his Israeli based film series “Lemon Popsicle,” “The Last American Virgin” is one emotional wrecking ball of a film. It was promoted for all intents and purposes like another wacky, early 80's T&A teen comedy, which must have seriously messed with audiences' heads when they actually sat down to watch it. Instead of frat style wackiness, “Last American Virgin” centers around Gary (Lawrence Monoson), your average awkward teenage boy. He ends up developing the crush of the century on lovely but kind of vacant Karen (Diane Franklin). Of course, Karen's taste in dudes is more on the cute but incredibly stupid side. While that is going on, Gary and his friends, being young hormonal dudes, go questing to get laid, leading up to one particularly ugly sequence involving a calloused and diseased hooker. Things get even more complicated when Karen turns up pregnant and leans on poor Gary for support. I don't want to spoil things too much but needless to say, it will all end in tears. “Last American Virgin” rings true of the worst aspects of the teenage experience: rejection, awkwardness, alienation and the type of life lessons that leave a nice little ring sized scar on you for good. All the acclaim that Amy Heckerling's “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” got should have gone to this film. While “Fast Times” had some memorable moments, its handling of the serious aspects always felt a little forced to me. (Plus, the indignity of having a character lose her virginity to Jackson Browne's insidious “Somebody's Baby.” Jesus wept.)

Last but certainly not least is famed actor and forever controversial force-of-nature Klaus Kinski's sole directorial film, “Paganini.” Based on the life of famed “vampire with a violin,” Niccolo Paganini, Kinski's take on the bio-drama is one rare bird of a film. Opting for more of a fever dream approach as opposed to your usual a-b-c plot lines associated more commonly with historical films, “Paganini” sears itself with lush imagery, eschewing mechanical lighting in favor of both natural and candlelight. Weaved throughout is naked sexual dysfunction, blurring the lines perhaps between Paganini and Kinski himself, a torrential need for love that will always, always leave and the sweet, irreplaceable bond between a father and his son. In fact, both Kinski's then-wife, Deborah Caprioglio and his son Nikolai Kinski appear as Paganini's wife and son, respectively. It's a work that is as uncompromising as it is unforgettable. The only other film that comes close to it in recent memory is Nico B.'s challenging and superb “1334.”

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Scream Factorized: Q: THE WINGED SERPENT & DARK ANGEL on Blu-ray

Q: THE WINGED SERPENT(1982; Larry Cohen)
Larry Cohen is one of those kinda self-made filmmakers that I can't help but have a healthy amount of respect for. He's not quite Roger Corman-level self-made(though interestingly Samuel Z. Arkoff "presented Q), but he's darned impressive nonetheless. I think that one of the things that impresses me most about him is his skill as a writer. Not to say that his films are best picture material or anything, but almost all of them are solid genre/exploitation films that are interesting and stand out amongst a ton of less-than-impressive efforts I've come across from his contemporaries. It's clear that at a certain point(& certainly today), a filmmaker does not have to make a good film for it to be successful, but Cohen is a much more thoughtful dude than that. His stories are often quite unique or at least take familiar material and bring something new to it. I know that's a big part of the reason he's become the cult director he is today. Another of Cohen's great talents is his ability to work in a bunch of different genres. Horror, drama, action; he is equally adept at each.
Another part of Q's particular cult appeal is the cast. David Carradine and Richard Roundtree play a couple cops investigating a series of bizarre murders. That right there is enough to get my attention. Then you've got Michael Moriarty, the crown jewel of Cohen's stock company of actors. The two worked together a bunch, always to great effect. Moriarty is a great fit for Cohen in that he too is a very versatile guy. Here he plays a small-time thief who stumbles upon the nest of some kind of giant flying creature in the dilapidated upper-regions of an old skyscraper. Said creature is gobbling up New Yorkers in bunches each day so needless to say, the cops are a bit desperate to find it. Moriarty's character, Jimmy Quinn, finally sees an opportunity to capitalize on his exclusive knowledge of the creature's whereabouts.
In true Roger Corman fashion, Larry Cohen provides us with only glimpses of the creature until the films final 10 minutes. This has always been a slight sticking point for me, but I understand how budgetary constraints may have made it more difficult to show more than that. The transfer looks nice and this is, without question, the best this movie has ever looked. It also includes a solid commentary track from Mr. Cohen himself. It's a fun track and you know it's going to be a fun track when it's starts with,"Okay, I'm Larry Cohen and I don't know what I'm talking about". Cohen then goes on to describe a horrible early test screening which had tons of walk outs(many thought they there there to see CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND) including Carl Reiner and his wife. He then goes on to detail the films critical success(even Siskel & Ebert liked it) and describes many facets of the film's production. It is remarkable what he accomplished off based on the stories he tells here. Fun stuff.

DARK ANGEL aka I COME IN PEACE(1990; Craig R. Baxley)
Dolph Lundgren. There can be only one such fellow. Ivan Drago, The Punisher, He-Man. He is all these things and much more. I must say I've been pleased to see him get a bit of a renaissance via THE EXPENDABLES movies in recent years.
Like many folks my age, I was first introduced to Lundgren as the evil Russian dynamo Ivan Drago in ROCKY IV. He was a remarkable villain and elevated what seems in retrospect to be a cash grab sequel for sure(I guess most sequels are cash grabs huh?). Later, during my high school years, I became obsessed with the Punisher comic book series. So obsessed that a few people even addressed me as "Frank" in my last high school yearbook. Also so obsessed that I acquired THE PUNISHER standup from my local video store when they were done with it and kept it in my room for years. Dolph was a decent Punisher in my eyes so I dug the movie for sure. I was of course a big Schwarzenegger fan too around that time. Both THE TERMINATOR and PREDATOR were a pretty big deal to me. So I COME IN PEACE hit kind of a sweet spot for me in that it was kind of a PREDATOR/TERMINATOR-type movie, but with Dolph. It's a great mash up of a genre piece and one that I feel has been forgotten a bit over the years. For those of you that dig 80s classics like PREDATOR, THE TERMINATOR or THE HIDDEN(less well-known, but comparable), this is the flick for you. Also, this film has a certain continuity with THE PUNISHER for me in that Dolph still has the dark hair, which he only had for a few films. Plus his character has a similar gruffness to Frank Castle, which I like. He and Brian Benben actually have a pretty enjoyable buddy-cop chemistry. Oh and did I mention there is some badass weaponry in the movie too? Well there is and that's another standout feature for 80s action fans like myself.
The disc includes a nice 25 minute retrospective featurette on the making of the film, featuring director Craig R. Baxley, Dolph Lundgren, & Brian Benben. Early on, Baxley talks about how the film was initially sold to him as a $25-30 million production, but that that budget was substantially reduced to $5-7 million as soon as he actually signed on. Thankfully, Baxley comes from stunt work as does his family so they had the knowhow to get things done action-wise safely and cheaply. The stunts & action in the film have always been memorable for me and I'm all the more impressed to know the budget level this film was what is was and what they pulled off.

Both films can be purchased via Shout Factory's website:

Monday, July 29, 2013


ANYTHING GOES(1956; Robert Lewis)
My mind can be a little annoying at times in that it can't help but think of movies in terms of other movies. Now I had never seen ANYTHING GOES prior to this, but of course I can't think of that song without thinking of the opening scene from INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. This movie features music and Lyrics by Cole Porter. Story and screenplay by Sidney Sheldon. It's interesting to hear a lot of these Cole Porter tunes in a film that preceded Bogdanovich's AT LONG LAST LOVE, especially because I just recently revisited that film on Blu-ray. So, as you might have guessed, the songs sound much better in this movie. I am certainly a proponent of both Bing Crosby and Donald O'Connor. Both very talented guys. Crosby is obviously more talented in the singing arena and O'Connor in the dancing(though he's a good singer too). I was hoping for a 'Road movie' of sorts, which this isn't really, but it's still quite refreshing - like a Mojito or something. Mitzi Gaynor is quite lovely, even if her voice reminds me alarmingly of Judy Jetson. And speaking of distracting voices, tell me it's not a little disorienting to actually hear Phil Harris voice coming from him instead of Thomas O'Malley or some other animated character.

THE REFORMER AND THE REDHEAD(1950; Norman Frank/Melvin Panama)
Any film that features a fistfight between June Allyson and Kathleen Freeman within the first 10 minutes has at least earned my attention for a little bit. I'll always remember Kathleen Freeman as the foul-mouth landlady that Dan Aykroyd has to question in DRAGNET, but it's been glorious to discover her older films, especially all the stuff she did with Jerry Lewis. June Allyson is an odd case for me. I don't really care for her as a general rule and was shocked to find out that I was not alone in my dislike. Apparently, there is a contingent of classic film fans who also have a June Allyson problem. As for me, I can't really explain what it is that bothers me about here. To even attempt to get at my issue I tried to delve deep back into my mind and recall my first encounter with her. It was in the Gary Coleman classic THE KID WITH THE BROKEN HALO. I can barely recall her character, but I believe she was kind of a crabby old lady in the movie. Of course, her experience with the adorable Coleman brings her around to being a happier person by the end, but there must have been something about that character that just struck me wrong when I was a kid. I really wish I could understand exactly what it is about her that rubs me the wrong way though. Especially in her older films wherein I can see that she is a charming presence... in theory. It doesn't help that her character in this film is a bit self-righteous, but at least her real-life husband, Dick Powell is in the film to help balance things out. It is especially amusing to see a scene with Dick Powell and a lion. That was fun for sure. If you're looking for a movie with funny scenes of Dick Powell reacting to llamas, lions, chimpanzees, mountain goats and other animals then this is the flick for you. On the whole, the film is quite pleasant, so I'd say it's worth seeing. It's certainly as tolerable as June Allyson has ever been for me. I credit the genuine chemistry between she and Dick Powell and all the cute animals. Plus an one-shot joke with Tor Johnson doesn't hurt either.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer of underappreciated fiction and non - with a distracting, lifelong habit of movie-watching. He is currently orchestrating #Bond_age_, the James Bond social media project (housed at and blogs about various other nonsense at (Please) stalk him on twitter: @007hertzrumble and @30hertzrumble.

Underrated drama can be a tricky thing. Comedies are often wholly subjective and lend themselves rediscovery through word of mouth. Pure dramas, in my mind, are less subjective and a harder sell. And then the challenge becomes identifying a pure drama. Is there even such a thing? It could be said that melodramas, perhaps, are the dramatic ideal. But the thing with melodrama is that Douglas Sirk cornered the market, and I have no desire to revisit Sirk. Dramas with longevity, dramas that inspire multiple viewings refrain from dour, unrelenting sadness and sadistic weepiness. These features can and do comprise great drama, but they’re best ameliorated and contrasted by humor and suspense and hope. My pre-1980 cinephilia generally sticks to genre such as horror and sci-fi. And while I had a few picks from the 1950’s and 1960’s on my initial list, I will choose to reside in my comfort zone of formative, feverish moviegoing. But first, we’ll start with something that, hopefully, earns me some Old Movie Wierdo cred before I start back up again with 1988…

An evening ruined by a disgruntled diner (a Charles Laughton cameo) causes nightclub owner Valentine Wilmot to investigate the matter in the kitchen where he discovers several employees in the scullery watching Shosho (Anna May Wong), a dishwasher, dancing on the table. After Valentine fires half of his big dance team “Mabel and Vic” over a matter of a little unrequited love triangle, attendance declines drastically and the nightclub’s fortunes wane (Valentine fires half of his big dance team “Mabel and Vic” and attendance declines drastically). To change his fortune, Valentine gambles big and hires Shosho to perform traditional Chinese dances the gathered masses. Shosho becomes a star, but not without a number of dangerous repercussions. Piccadilly was Anna May Wong’s final silent film and the first of five British movies in which she had starring roles (she left the Hollywood system after being repeatedly cast as Asian stereotypes in supporting roles while non-Asian actresses took lead roles). While Gilda Gray boasts top billing, this is Anna May Wong’s movie from the first moment she’s shown dancing on the table. I thought of this gem from the late silent era because of a recent poll asking for the favorite movies from the 1920’s. I submitted my Top 20 list, which contained Piccadilly sitting between The Last Laugh and The Gold Rush in the Top 10. Yet on no other submitted list did I see a mention of Piccadilly. What gives? For now I’ll choose to believe that it just hasn’t been widely seen. In 2004 the film received a brand new restoration and appeared in theaters and film festivals. Now even the DVD appears to be OOP. Track this one down while you can.

Billed as a comedy, but certainly not funny ha ha. Writer/director Bill Forsyth has a long list of offbeat, often underrated Scottish-born dramedies on his resume with Local Hero, Comfort and Joy and Gregory’s Girl. Filmed in British Columbia, Housekeeping is his first North American production. Two young girls are taken on a sudden road trip to visit a relative. Shortly after arriving, their mother commits suicide and they are put in the care of an elderly relative. Hilarious! A few years later Aunt Sylvie (Christine Lahti) arrives to care for the sisters. Aunt Sylvie is, as they say, “a character.” She is at once a creature of curiosity and earnest, cheerful affection (many people find her cheer off-putting and odd) and the two sisters eventually grow apart, partly because of their differing views on Sylvie. Lahti’s Aunt Sylvie comes out of the tradition of characters like Peter Sellers in Being There or later Robin Williams in The Fisher King where you can never be too sure whether they’re completely bonkers or far saner than anyone else in the movie. At the end of his review on Housekeeping, Roger Ebert says he’s just “seen a film that could perhaps be described as being about a madwoman, but I had seen a character who seemed closer to a mystic, or a saint.” Lahti is best known for Running On Empty (another perhaps underseen gem) or the Al Pacino flick …And Justice For All but nothing else I’ve ever seen her do remotely compares to her high wire act performed with Aunt Sylvie. Well regarded but almost entirely unseen. Available from Sony BOD collection.

I’m profoundly interested in movies where actors known for being funny guys take on dramatic roles. I considered including Steve Martin’s Leap of Faith on this list as well. Bill Murray’s Razor’s Edge also gets an unfairly bad rap. While Michael Keaton has tackled a wide breadth of genres post-Batman, at this point in the 1980’s, he was Mr. Mom and Johnny Dangerously. When Clean and Sober was released in August of 1988, Beetlejuice had just left theaters and nobody really wanted to watch Keaton play a loathsome cocaine-addict named Daryl who wakes up with a dead woman in his bed and checks himself into rehab. Keaton, Morgan Freeman and Kathy Bates put on a veritable acting clinic. The result is a focused perspective on the horrors of addiction without any glossy Hollywood misdirection. Keaton’s performance is a punch to the gut. The fascinating relationship between Daryl and his counselor (Freeman) encourages multiple viewings to watch the two brilliant actors apply their craft in a movie that most rewards in the quiet moments between the weighted drama. Whenever I remember that this movie was only ever released on DVD in a full-screen transfer and snapper case, I lament that empty space on my shelf between City of Lost Children and The Clearing.

David Mamet’s second gig as director strikes a far different chord than the majority of his more famous films. Things Change is sweet and funny. It’s emotional without pandering. But beneath that exterior gloss is a dark human tragedy that ultimately promises hope. I recently read a criticism that considered Things Change the anti-Being There. And it make sense. In both, an innocent is transformed by a group of people representing “the institution.” Peter Sellers’ mentally challenged character takes on all the supposed characteristics of civilized society, like a blank slate, and consequently broadcasts clear all of their hateful prejudices. Pessimism underlies the Sellers’ film. Don Ameche’s simple Italian shoemaker agrees to confess to a mob murder he didn’t commit so that he might have a taste of wealth upon his release from prison. Ameche draws out the best in everyone around him, changing the outlook of the less humble and less genuine. Despite all this good he has inspired, however, the mob boss’ plans change, leading Ameche’s cobbler and those he has befriended toward a tense crossroads. The chemistry between Ameche and his handler and confession coach (Joe Mantegna) provides the delicate balance around which the rest of the movie revolves. Mamet’s script lacks the verbal explosions most associated with his films. I’m generally allergic to movies that could be described as “quietly elegant” and I even hate myself for using those words myself. But calling Don Ameche’s timeless performance anything else would be dishonest. It’s the last great starring performance of one of our most endearing actors.

I missed my opportunity to talk about Robert Townsend in the Underrated Comedies list, but I'm not making that same mistake twice. Townsend had a way of opening a dialogue across racial lines that more recent writers and directors have failed to match. He was a showman, who snared you with humor – or in this case the recollection of a type of music, an era – and used your attention to have a serious conversation. In this case, he and co-writer Keenan Ivory Wayans use the rise to fame of a Motown vocal quintet to discuss the hardships of the entertainment industry, the inherent greed and racism, but The Five Heartbeats does not fail to call the integrity of the performers into question along the way. The original songs written for the movie (and sung by The Dells) give the band a docu-screen credibility. In as much as they were inspired by acts like The Dells, The Temptations, the Four Tops, Wilson Pickett, bad songwriting would have undermined the entire film. The music also forgives some of the goofier bits where the 1990’s “subtlety” slaps you upside the head like a drink from the fire hose. When the Heartbeats reunite at a family barbecue many years after their fame has dissipated, it shouldn’t warm your cockles, but goddammit, it does.

Every cinephile has movies that he/she attributes to the expanding of their cinematic consciousness. One of those movies for me is Thunderheart. Odd, perhaps. But I walked out of this Michael Apted film spewing praise. Praise for the screenplay. Praise for Val Kilmer, Graham Greene and Sam Shepherd. Did I know what I was talking about? Pfft. I was merely 14. It wasn't until later that I could talk about Roger Deakins' cinematography that focuses plainly on the poverty endemic to reservation life or the lyrical consideration of Indian beliefs and spirituality or how Apted's history as a documentarian informed his fine attention to detail regarding the people and places that occupy his story. Two years earlier Dances With Wolves garnered all the press and awards, but Thunderheart, behind the guise of a Western-style mystery thriller, explored the same injustice with a more forceful hand. This was the movie that, for whichever of the above reasons, made me want to make movies myself. In fact, I wrote about Thunderheart in my (successful!) application to the USC Graduate Film School. While I eventually turned my focus to writing, the passion about movies that Thunderheart helped foster still remains.

THE CLAIM (2000)
The quiet solitude of a snow-covered landscape provides the perfect background for understated drama. Smilla's Sense of Snow could have also qualified but even that, relatively speaking, echoes with a certain kind of bombast. The Claim boasts a largely forgotten actor (Wes Bentley) enjoying his fifteen minutes of fame to star in a period drama/romance/western that nobody really saw. I was in undergraduate film school at the time of its release. I walked in my screenwriting class on Monday and the professor started class by asking "So who saw The Claim this weekend." I was the only person to raise my hand, so he turned the conversation on me. He asked, "What can we learn about screenwriting from The Claim?" I panicked, clearly not ready for the Socratic method in film school classes. I said the one thing I'd loved about the movie. "How to write without dialogue." He pointed at me with a piece of chalk and said, "Everyone in here should see this movie." Michael Winterbottom's tense drama based on Thomas Hardy's novel The Mayor of Casterbridge makes a study of images (the mountains, the perpetual snowfall, horses pulling a house) and dreams (the hardships justified by the promise of prosperous nation). It is also about the ways in which the pasts and presents of the rugged frontiersmen and women endlessly intertwine in this little mining town called Kingdom Come.

Sure, you've probably seen it, you probably like it. But unless you're talking about Wonder Boys as one of the greatest movies of the last 50 years (or ever), you're underrating it. Michael Douglas' Grady Tripp is one of the deepest, most interesting characters presented on screen. In fact, each character is given time to live and lose in life. They're fallible people, stumbling through life, held back by their delusions or narcotics or bourgeois malaise or fear… Curtis Hanson's follow up to L.A. Confidential further displays his deft touch at creating likable characters out of unlikeable people. No small part of that is Michael Chabon's novel and Steve Kloves' (he who wrote Harry Potter 1-7) adapted script. The movie easily bests the fine book. It's leaner, more focused and Grady Tripp's pathos comes though more clearly. It's the answer to that timeless talking point about movies that improve upon the novel. And I happen to love both. Rip Torn, Tobey Maguire, Robert Downey, Jr., Frances McDormand and even Katie Holmes create fully realized characters with sometimes a minimum amount of screen time. I’ll stop calling this movie underseen or underrated just as soon as someone steps up and gives me a DVD release worthy of the movie.

A few other underseen or underrated titles I’d recommend:

Garbo Talks
Cold Fever
Leap of Faith
Flash of Genius

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Angela from Hollywood Revue

Angela is a classic film aficionado from Detroit. She writes about her love of classic films over at The Hollywood Revue:

1. A Woman of Paris (1923)
In my book, A Woman of Paris is by far the most underrated movie Charlie Chaplin ever made. When it was released in 1923, audiences didn’t take to it since it isn’t a comedy and Chaplin doesn’t star in it. Instead, it was a vehicle for his first great leading lady, Edna Purviance. It’s too bad audiences in 1923 didn’t give it a chance because they missed out on one lavish and sophisticated drama. Plus I love seeing Edna as the star of a movie. She’s my favorite of Chaplin’s leading ladies; I wish she had been able to become a star in her own right.

2. In Name Only (1939)
I’ve got to hand it to a movie that takes what would have been one of the finest comedic casts ever assembled (Carole Lombard, Cary Grant, Kay Francis, and Charles Coburn) and then puts them in a drama. That is one bold casting move. But luckily, the cast is as good at drama as they are at comedy. A bit melodramatic at times, but the cast makes it very much worth watching.

3. East Side, West Side (1949)
East Side, West Side is one of my favorite movie discoveries of the past year. I’m very surprised that it isn’t a more remembered movie if only for its cast. It’s got Barbara Stanwyck, James Mason, Ava Gardner, Van Heflin, plus Cyd Charisse in a supporting role. Stanwyck, Mason, and Heflin were all great in it and Ava Gardner was so perfect as the conniving homewrecker. This movie easily could have been turned into pure melodrama, but its solid cast and direction from Mervyn LeRoy keep it engaging and smart rather than soapy.

4. Kings Row (1942)
I’d never really cared much about Ronald Reagan as an actor, but Kings Row really made me take notice of him. He was excellent in it and he’s the main reason why I like this movie so much. And if you want to see Charles Coburn playing against type, this is the movie to see. When I think of Charles Coburn, I tend to think of lighthearted comedies like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The More the Merrier. But in Kings Row, Coburn plays a downright sinister character and I sort of loved it.

5. Four Daughters (1938)
For being a Best Picture nominee, I’m surprised by how little attention Four Daughters seems to get nowadays. This movie made it very easy to care about a fictional family. The writing is great; even though it is primarily a drama, it also has just the right amount of comedy. The cast is outstanding and adds so much charm to the movie. Claude Rains is a perfect family patriarch and Priscilla Lane (a rather underrated actress, in my opinion) really gets a chance to shine. And you can’t talk about Four Daughters without mentioning John Garfield, who not only made his film debut in it, he also earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Shawn Robare

Shawn Robare is one-third of the Cult Film Club, a podcast dedicated to the movies that he and his co-hosts love to death. Though he hasn’t seen every cult film ever made, he has kept track of the two thousand plus flicks he’s seen on a highly annotated list that took him three years to research and compile. When he’s not obsessively adding film experiences to “The List”, Shawn runs Branded in the 80s, a website dedicated to remembering what it was like to be a kid during one of the headiest times in pop culture history.
The Station Agent(2003)
If there’s one thing that tends to bug me about film, it’s that sometimes the visual is over highlighted when it comes to actors and actresses that are unique or different. By that I mean that it’s rare for instance to see a flick staring a little person where the sole focus of the plot doesn’t revolve around the fact that the character is a little person. Or they’re cast as an elf, or some sort of creature or supernatural being. They can’t just be little and that’s the end of it. One of the first things that drew me to the Station Agent was that it stars Peter Dinklage, who happens to be a little person, and for the most part, that’s just how the film deals with it. Dinklage is in the move because he’s a great actor and is perfect for the part, and that’s really refreshing and something I’d like to see more from casting directors.

As far as the film goes, it follows the story of Fin, a quiet man who really loves trains, inheriting an old dilapidated train station from his business partner. Out of work after the passing of his friend and employer, Fin travels to the abandoned station and moves in, hoping to keep away from the locals and just spend time with the nearby railcars. Circumstance intercedes and he’s forced to mingle with a few interesting locals and before he knows it he’s drawn into the lives of a charismatic food truck vendor and a depressed reclusive artist. Low key, often hilarious, the film is surprisingly entertaining for its subtlety, much to the credit of the cast including Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Williams and Bobby Carnivale.

Zero Effect(1998)
Being a pretty big fan of Ben Stiller, I didn’t catch up with Zero Effect until about five or six years ago. My cable provider had been offering a freebie deal on their new service of ordering older flicks on demand, and the only flick I hadn’t seen was Zero Effect. I figured what the hell, it couldn’t be as bad as Zoolander, so I gave it a try and was completely blown away. Screw Ben Stiller, this flick is all about Bill Pullman, written specifically for him in fact by the director/writer Jake Kasdan. Daryl Zero has probably won a place in my heart as my favorite screen detective of all time. He’s a little bit Sherlock Holmes, a little bit Hunter Thompson, and just a tad Buckaroo Banzai. Like Buckaroo, Daryl Zero has one of the best obvious yet deep quotes of all time:

"Now, a few words on looking for things. When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad. Because of all the things in the world, you’re only looking for one of them. When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good. Because of all the things in the world, you’re sure to find some of them."

The film riffs on the genre of film noir, but blends it with dry comedy, and just a bit of the tension in some of Hitchcock’s early thrillers to form a tone that is all its own. The case? Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal) has lost his keys. It’s up to Daryl Zero to find them, and along the way he uncovers a mystery that no one saw coming.

Big Night(1996)
1996 was an amazing year for film so it’s not surprising that this low key drama about two Italian immigrants (played by writer/producer Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) trying to open a restaurant in the 50s did not seem to connect with audiences. Buried under the releases of films like Fargo, Trainspotting, The English Patient, Swingers, Sling Blade, From Dusk Till Dawn, Crash, Pusher, heck even Bottle Rocket, Big Night just didn’t have a chance. At the time I was working part time behind the counter of the video rental section of my local grocery store and I made it a point to watch practically every new release that we had available. When I took Big Night home I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it sure wasn’t that I’d fall in love with the performances of Shalhoub, Tucci, and Ian Holm as a villainous rival restaurateur. But fall in love I did. The film takes place over the course of a make it or break it evening where the two brothers put everything they have into a perfect meal with the hopes that Louis Prima will accept the invitation to dine while he’s in town. Equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious, this movie is a lost gem of the indie movement of the 90s.

Two-Lane Blacktop(1971)
I came across Two-Lane Blacktop after doing some research into the “car flicks” that influenced Quentin Tarantino to make Death Proof. The film stars a young James Taylor (yeah, that James Taylor, the Fire and Rain, ex-hippie soft rock king), Dennis Wilson (of the Beach Boys), Laurie Bird, and Warren Oates (who I only really knew as Sgt. Hulka from Stripes.) Basically it’s sort of an existentialist gear-head flick that follows two friends, a hitchhiker, and a compulsive liar as they race across the country.

The first thing that surprised me was how much I loved both James Taylor (as The Driver) and Dennis Wilson (as The Mechanic); both perfectly nail that disassociated quietness that comes from truly cool obsessive hobbyists (you know the type, that dude that’s uber knowledgeable and has pretty much seen or experienced every aspect of something and just kind of hangs out mildly interested in the scene (think Chevy Chase in Caddyshack or Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused.) When they’re checking out potential cars to race against, and they’re rattling off engine types and model years it’s with a total stoicism that’s way more realistic and convincing than a more manic method approach (like Nic Cage in the Gone in 60 Seconds remake.) Very early on you get used to the two as a unit, almost inseparable, so later in the film with the introduction of Laurie Bird’s hitchhiker, even though it’s played out very subdued, you can really feel the distance growing between the Driver and the Mechanic. It’s kind of painful to watch (in a good way.)

Overall the film is very slow, plodding along just fast enough with almost no plot that you might actually fall asleep if it weren’t for the occasional engine revving or race. Warren Oates’ character, an older guy with a much nicer looking car (a yellow 1970 Pontiac G.T.O.) than the duo (in their dark gray primer colored ’55 Chevy) ends up adding a lot of unnerving humor and a lightness to the overly brooding film. He’s constantly picking up hitchhikers and coming up with a new spiel about how he ended up with his G.T.O., none of which you can believe by the time he hooks up with the duo. There’s actually a great cameo by Harry Dean Stanton as a gay hitchhiker that manages to be both funny and very disturbing at the same time. This movie plays out much in the same way that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road feels. What probably helped this along was that the director Monte Hellman only dished out a day’s worth of the script at a time which seemed frustrating to the actors, but which helped to insure very organic performances. He also tried his best to deprive the actors of sleep so that they would be in the same head-space as the characters which were on a non-stop trip.

Light of Day(1987)
Being a child of the 80s it’s hard not to have a man crush on Michael J. Fox for his role in the Back to the Future films alone, let alone Midnite Madness, Secret of My Success, Teen Wolf and Family Ties. But my favorite Fox flick is the little seen Light of Day co-starring Joan Jett, Michael McKean and Gena Rowlands. Written and Directed by frequent Scorsese collaborator Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Last Temptation of Christ), the film follows Fox and Jett as a small town brother and sister hard rock duo in a band called the Barbusters. They’re just trying to make ends meet while attempting to care for their ailing mother and watching over Jett’s young son. A blue collar rock and roll story, the performances by Fox and Jett are wonderful, but what really elevates the flick is the band and the music performed by Jett and her cohorts.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

20 Favorite Underrated Dramas - Dean Treadway(pt.1)

Dean Treadway is a co-host and special events correspondent for the popular Movie Geeks United podcast. Dean has been involved in film criticism, film festival programming, and television performance and programming for more than 25 years.  His blog, filmicability (at details his lifelong passion  for the movies. His 20 favorite flicks, in descending order, are 2001: A Space Odyssey, Fanny and Alexander, Touch of Evil, The Godfather/ The Godfather Pt II, Annie Hall, It's A Wonderful Life, Goodfellas,  A Little Romance, The 400 Blows, The Passion of Joan of Arc,  Lawrence of Arabia, Reds, Breaking the Waves, Napoleon, Network, Targets, Paths of Glory, All That Jazz, Sherman's March,  and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

I was jolted by the enormity of this task. Out of all the genres, the drama is the one that is, because of its broadness, not only the most difficult to define, but also the one that’s most easily ignored (except when it comes to Oscar time). I really had to research my entire movie-watching history to come up with an answer to Brian’s request for my contribution to this ongoing series. I immediately asked him if I HAD to limit myself to only five titles. This, to me, was impossible. I asked if I could arrive at the equally arbitrary number of 20, just so I could feel as if I had lessened the ignorance of this broad genre, while simultaneously widening my choices. When I went through the lists of my favorite movies, I was not-so-surprised by the high number of dramas I felt had not been recognized by many as being some of the most astounding ever made. I had to juggle whether these movies HAD been recognized, because of their directors’ reputations (largely after their release years) or their awards recognition. I also had to decide whether indeed some of these were or were NOT primarily dramas. Anyway, however one slices it, it was a difficult (and fun) task. In the end, I had to concoct what I hope is a hearty stew of films, consisting of an equal amount of those helmed by little-known names, and those guided by major directors. So, now, in the face of this vast challenge, in alphabetical order, I posit a first salvo of what will eventually be my list of 20 favorite unsung dramas (I tend to write a little long, so order not to overwhelm here, I‘m offering up ten this go round, with a second ten being saved for a subsequent installment next week):

Abigail’s Party (1977, Mike Leigh)
This is a supreme kick-off to this list, as it’s written and directed by my favorite filmmaker on the Earth right now. I know that many film lovers are familiar with Leigh’s work, but I have to submit this as one of his most dazzlingly blunt achievements. What makes this inclusion a little difficult to justify is that it was shot on video for the BBC in ‘77. The first thing I asked Mike Leigh, upon meeting him at the New York Film Festival in 2011 was whether or not he felt as if he should remake ABIGAIL’S PARTY for film (considering so few in America, at least, had seen it, and also considering it had recently been remounted on Broadway with Jennifer Jason Leigh in the lead). He quickly told me he had no interest in revisiting the work and, even though he didn’t say this, it is probably because it was done perfectly the first time around. In ABIGAIL‘S PARTY, Alison Steadman (Leigh’s wife at the time) portrays Beverly, the host of an ill-conceived get-together for which she is the sickening, domineering host. Her husband (Tim Stearn) shrinks in her presence, and fights mightily for any sort of authority. Their guests are a giddy, understanding friend (Janine Duvitski), her sour husband (John Salthouse), and Beverly’s jittery upstairs neighbor (Harriet Reynolds) who’s seeking refuge from the simultaneous bash being given by her teenage daughter. Steadman astounds as the woman who’s startlingly clueless to her obnoxiousness as she denigrates, in a variety of ways, her guests while being overly willing to offer cigarettes, alcohol, and nibbles to them all…all except her husband, who’s seen (by her) as a stuck-up drudge. This is one of Leigh’s most indelible works and (as far as I can tell) the only one ever shot on video (ABIGAIL’S PARTY was so adored by Britain’s viewing public that it became a yearly TV event, strangely situated around the holidays). It’s often awkwardly funny, yes, but in the end, it is categorically devastating. It offers a detailed template for that inimitable sense of human discomfort that many of Leigh’s movies have since so uniquely provided.

Bastard Out of Carolina (1996, Anjelica Huston)
Rejected by Hollywood because of its flat-out frankness, Anjelica Huston’s adaptation of Dorothy Allison’s 1992 novel remains one of the most shocking movies of all time. I still can’t believe it was allowed to be made (certainly not within the past two decades). Even groundbreaking networks HBO and TNT said “NO WAY” to it, and the film thus had to be eventually released by Showtime (a coup for them, but a clue as to its unmarketable quality, since Showtime was not then known for its original movies). Set in the 1950s and 60s South, it’s narrated by the adult Bone Boatwright (Laura Dern), and oversees Bone’s ridiculously difficult tween years as she stealthily deals with an incomprehensibly flighty mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and, most horribly, with an absolutely reprehensible stepfather (in a utterly slimy performance by Ron Eldard; his character here is one of those I‘ve most hated in all the films I‘ve ever seen). Jena Malone, as the young Bone, delivers a magnificent performance, filled with intelligence, wit and dread; again, I can hardly imagine this movie being made today, given what horrific scenes Malone was required to play out (if you are a parent, and even if you are not, you may find this movie unwatchable). The remarkable supporting cast includes Michael Rooker (unbelievably strong as Bone’s tough but loving uncle), Glenne Headly (as her serene aunt), Lyle Lovett, Christina Ricci, Dermot Mulroney, Grace Zabriskie, Pat Hingle, and Diana Scarwid (I mean, man, what a cast!). Despite her valuable film ancestry, Anjelica Huston hasn’t been allowed to direct a major movie since BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, probably because the entire industry is frightened of the difficult truths with which she might emerge. 

Daisy Miller (1974, Peter Bogdanovich)
Bogdanovich’s adaptation of Henry James’s novella arrived on screens right after his blockbuster trifecta THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, WHAT’S UP DOC, and PAPER MOON. For tiring reasons, the film community was ready to show the door to this apparently sacrosanct upstart (he had long been hailed, and still hails, as an unassailable film authority). So when DAISY MILLER wasn’t quite seeming of masterpiece quality, the industry’s knive-sharpening could be heard ringing from coast to coast. In the end, absolutely no one went to see DAISY MILLER and, in fact, no one wants to see it today. Guided by talk and genre alone, otherwise more adventurous movie lovers automatically lump it in with Bogdanovich’s career-destroying musical AT LONG LAST LOVE (which has recently gotten a much lauded alternate cut) and his silent film homage NICKELODEON (which is also not as bad as many make it out to be). When I first got a copy of DAISY MILLER, I was prepared for the worst. What I got was a splendid drama with comedic undertones, scripted by Frederic Raphael (TWO FOR THE ROAD, EYES WIDE SHUT), that completely floored me with its combination of curious repartee, regal costume drama, and ultimately dour conclusions. Barry Brown (the doomed lead actor of Robert Benton’s BAD COMPANY who eventually succumbed to alcoholism in 1978) plays the flirty Frederick Winterborne, a dandy who sets his eyes on the strong but foolish title character, played with a grinning flair by Bogdanovich’s off-screen love Cybill Shepherd (she’s mesmerizing in the film, but her presence is another gossipy aspect that worked against its favor). Daisy is a dunce who makes all the wrong decisions, but she is also dynamic and well beyond her time in terms of sexual freedom, and that’s what draws Frederick‘s adventurous glance (he‘s a dunce, too, though, and in realizing that, one can see where the attraction lies). It may be, though, that the thing hobbling this production is Frederick’s passive nature, which allows Daisy’s antics to dictate his too-careful moves (which are really products of the times). Let’s just say he and she--both of them ugly Americans vacationing in an unfamiliar Europe--both pay deeply for their naivete. Seen now without all the gabbing about its makers, DAISY MILLER stands as a stark gravestone to not-quite-dead assumptions about both male and female roles in courtship. The supporting cast includes a surprisingly elderly-seeming Cloris Leachman as Daisy’s mother (she defies her coinciding role as the liberated star of the racy 70s TV hit PHYLLIS), an unforgiving Eileen Brennan as a socialite who disapproves of Daisy’s very existence, and a extremely unusual kid performance from folk-music artist James McMurtry--the son of LAST PICTURE SHOW author Larry McMurtry, in his only film--as Daisy’s annoying, buck-toothed, sweets-loving kid brother. The final shot leaves one incredulous at the film’s summarily unfair reception. With its gorgeous costumes and its sumptuous locations, even if it were remade today, I don’t think DAISY MILLER could be done any better.

The Bedford Incident (1965; James B. Harris)  
Producer James B. Harris followed up his long association with Stanley Kubrick (as the producer behind THE KILLING, PATHS OF GLORY and LOLITA) with his directorial debut, a British-made Cold War drama that proves he and Kubrick were on similar wavelengths, given that Kubrick completed DR. STRANGELOVE only a couple of years earlier.  THE BEDFORD INCIDENT stars a memorable Richard Widmark as the strict captain of a U.S. Navy destroyer, and Sidney Poitier as a photojournalist assigned to do an essay on the ship’s crew and operations.  It doesn’t take long for Poitier and the vessel’s newly-arrived doctor (Martin Balsam) to see the crew is being driven to the breaking point by Widmark’s high expectations--they’re working long hours, with no sleep, and aren’t allowed any sick days, so tensions are definitely running high.  Add into this mess a Soviet submarine that’s nabbed while violating territorial waters and the stage is set for the kind of dangerous confrontation the ambitious captain is chomping at the bit to “win.”  Harris effectively builds a terrifyingly anxious atmosphere throughout, and even though Poitier’s photojournalist is there to provide a sensible counterbalance to Widmark’s unreasonable war-mongering, the viewer just knows that things aren’t gonna turn out so well.  In its cautioning over the hairpin-trigger dangers of nuclear confrontation, THE BEDFORD INCIDENT (written by Oscar-winning screenwriter James Poe) takes its place alongside STRANGELOVE and Sidney Lumet’s FAIL-SAFE as one of the era’s most unnerving filmic warnings.  Arthur Lawson’s art direction is supremely accurate, and STRANGELOVE photographer Gilbert Taylor contributes some superb black-and-white work.   The supporting cast includes James MacArthur as the ship’s eager ensign, Wally Cox (!) as its eagle-eyed radarman, and there’s a brief glimpse of a very young Donald Sutherland.   Stark and antsy, THE BEDFORD INCIDENT is a stunner.  

The Incident (1967, Larry Peerce)
Okay. First, let me give you the cast…which is wholly unlike anything you could ever imagine: Martin Sheen, Tony Musante, Thelma Ritter, Jack Gilford, Ed McMahon, Ruby Dee, Donna Mills, Mike Kellin, Jan Sterling, Gary Merrill, Beau Bridges, and Brock Peters. Then let me give screenwriter Nicholas Baehr’s set-up: McMahon (Johnny Carson’s longtime second banana, in the only dramatic performance I’ve seen of his) plays the unreasonably grumpy husband to Diane Van der Vlis‘s dazed wife. Gilford and multiple-Oscar-nominee Ritter are an elderly couple uncomfortable with present-day morality. Peters is a justly angry black man and Dee is his please-keep-it-cool wife. Bridges and Robert Bannard are a couple of jolly Army privates on weekend leave. Kellin and Sterling are a middle-aged couple dissatisfied with their marriage. The supple Mills and an aggressive Victor Arnold are a couple on a sexually-charged first date. Gary Merrill (from ALL ABOUT EVE, most notably) is a struggling alcoholic. And Robert Fields is a sweaty homosexual struggling to keep his desires hidden. THE INCIDENT throws all these characters onto a maybe too-long late night subway train ride, and then adds into the mix the hateful Sheen and Musante--our “heroes”--who are culminating a mean, criminal, all-night drunk by torturing their fellow subway riders. The film is an indictment of Kitty Genovese-era NYC disregard for anyone who is in trouble, and it remains both an unimaginable time capsule and an almost completely unendurable one-set drama. Director Peerce went on to have a long film career after this (including films like THE BELL JAR, A SEPARATE PEACE, and THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN) but he never matched this unrelenting pace. And, honestly, who could? 

The Hill (1965, Sidney Lumet)
After an early 60s-era surge that included FAIL SAFE, LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT and THE PAWNBROKER, the unmatchable Sidney Lumet decided to go an entirely different way. He delved into adapting Ray Rigby and R.S. Allen’s crushing British military prison-set stage play onto film. Lumet luckily landed Bond himself, Sean Connery, in the lead (and this would prove to be Connery’s finest performance, and the beginning of an unlikely and fruitful collaboration between the two that would result in THE ANDERSON TAPES, THE OFFENSE, and MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS). In THE HILL, Connery plays Joe Roberts, a rebellious soldier who refused his commanding officer’s orders to fight, and is thus sent to a brutally punitive desert prison, along with fellow cellmates Alfred Lynch (who misses his wife too terribly), Ossie Davis (a black soldier up against the racism of a white army), Roy Kinnear (a plump coward), and Jack Watson (just trying to keep it together). In command: the unrelenting Harry Andrews as the by-the-books prison boss Wilson; Ian Hendry as the sadistic Staff Sergeant Williams; Ian Bannen as the sympathetic but obedient Sergeant Harris; and Michael Redgrave as the compound’s dizzied Medical Officer (while the real head of the prison, played by Norman Bird, is off dallying with prostitutes for most of the film). The title refers to a 25-foot-high structure made of sand and stone which prisoners are endlessly required to climb up and down in 100-degree heat as punishment, sometimes with gas masks and 50-pound water bottles as accoutrement. Lumet’s best films--12 ANGRY MEN, FAIL SAFE, NETWORK, THE VERDICT, and PRINCE OF THE CITY among them--take advantage of editing and camera placement to cement their power. THE HILL stands at attention amongst them, though you’d be hard pressed to find many Lumet fans who’ve seen this one. The drama here, played out by a miraculous cast and crew, just keeps getting ratcheted up a notch, another notch, and then ten more notches, before an explosion has to occur. By THE HILL’s phenomenal ending, you will feel beads of sweat palpably on your brow, even if you are in radically cool surroundings.

The House of Mirth (2000, Terence Davies)
With British writer/director Terrence Davies’ adaptation of Edith Wharton’s grueling novel about the limitations of being a woman in early 20th Century America (which is a setting that he makes subtly but abundantly clear), we are greeted with just how far women have come in declaring themselves their own. Meanwhile, in many ways, the film illustrates just how far women have yet to go, even today. THE HOUSE OF MIRTH stars the exquisite Gillian Anderson as a comely but impetuous marriage prospect who has no demonstrable skills and wants to marry for love (Eric Stoltz is her main attraction, although he is not financially independent enough for her to make a definitive decision). The fact that she can’t pull the trigger on this animal attraction with Stoltz makes it clear that she knows she must marry for money instead--she is, in fact, pressured endlessly to do so. She flirts with one man here, and another there, until she finds herself in a untenable position where she is irretrievably indebted to a foul, married baron (Dan Aykroyd, in a very rare dramatic role); distanced from another cold, unattractive prospect (Anthony Lapaglia); separated from a sympathetic friend (Terry Kinney) who happens to be unhappily married to her nastiest rival (an unforgettably chilly Laura Linney); disavowed by her stern Aunt Julia (Eleanor Bron); jealously unliked by her meek cousin Grace (a devastating Johdi May); and taken in only temporarily by her only good friend (Elizabeth McGovern). In the end, with its dense dialogue (the film requires the utmost attention) and superb production design, THE HOUSE OF MIRTH exquisitely and starkly illustrates what few choices even the most privileged of women had in the pre-women’s-rights era. For me, this is a movie that can be watched numerous times, with its layers upon layers of drama revealing themselves only with an increasingly deeper understanding of their stunning detail.

Marvin & Tige (1983, Eric Weston)
This one hasn’t been released on DVD yet, and that’s a crime, as it’s not only a radiantly effective tearjerker, but it also stands as indie god John Cassevetes’ pentultimate lead role before his too-early 1989 death (his 1984 film LOVE STREAMS was his final theatrical release). Interestingly, he’s cast as the co-lead with a young actor, Gibran Brown, who’s preternaturally superb as Tige Jackson, a pre-teen black kid who’s left to fend for himself after his mother dies. He’s saved from committing suicide one night by Marvin Stewart (Cassavetes), a elegantly philosophical borderline alcoholic living alone in his rundown Atlanta home. Eaten up with loneliness, Marvin invites Tige home for a bowl of chili and a place to sleep, and from here a tentative bond forms that only gets stronger as the film continues. Almost the entire film consists of sometimes funny, sometimes painfully intense scenes between two great actors: one, a seasoned veteran and the other, a precocious newcomer. If you do get a chance to see this rarity, I guarantee you’ll be wiping away copious and well-earned tears, helped along by director Weston’s and Wanda Dell’s humanistic script, and a terrific score from Patrick Williams and Earl Klugh that brilliantly combines elements of classical composition and jazz fusion. Also, as a native Atlantan, I have to say, I love the many locations Weston was able to get on his small budget (a budget which never seems like a liability). Also starring Billy Dee Willams (as Tige’s wealthy father, whom Tige has never met), and Denise Nicholas (as Tige’s mother).

Men Don’t Leave (1990, Paul Brickman)
I’ve always been mystified as to why Paul Brickman didn’t make more movies. He debuted as a director in 1983 with the wildly successful Tom Cruise vehicle RISKY BUSINESS (after toiling away as a screenwriter, most notably on Jonathan Demme‘s underseen CB-radio comedy HANDLE WITH CARE), and then waited seven years before coming out with the devastating MEN DON’T LEAVE…and, since then, he’s contributed a few screenplays to Hollywood here and there, but no more features. Maybe he was jolted by the scant attention paid to his second film, which was dumped into theaters in early 1990 and promptly ignored, even though it has a really great cast and is gorgeously filmed. I think the subject matter may have been too much for people to take (that’s the only guess I can hazard to make). Jessica Lange stars as Beth Macauley, a doting suburban housewife with two teenage kids (a snarky Chris O’Donnell and the doe-eyed Charlie Korsmo). Their lives are turned inside out when the family’s patriarch is killed in a construction accident, forcing them to sell their home and move to a small Baltimore apartment. Beth lands her first job ever as the assistant to the callous owner of a independent bakery (Kathy Bates), and then watches as her children begin to take refuge in other homes (O’Donnell starts up an affair with an older woman, a nurse played with great flair by Joan Cusack; and Korsmo, missing his father, begins spending more and more time over at a friend’s house, where the family unit is still intact). Even though she takes steps to forge a new life (including beginning a tentative romance with an avant-garde musician, played with understated charm by Arliss Howard), Beth finds herself sliding deeper and deeper into depression. The film, written by Brickman and Barbara Benedek (THE BIG CHILL), doesn’t spare any blows to Beth’s character, and the film really gets the feeling of being horribly down, to the point where you don’t think you can ever get up again. Lange gives what I think is her single best performance in her long career, and O’Donnell also delivers his best-ever showing (he has one scene with Arliss Howard that will make you crumble into sobs). With emotive photography by Bruce Surtees, a diverse and poignant score by Thomas Newman, and superb editing by Richard Chew, this movie has all the right stuff (even though I have to admit, some of its plotting in its final act is a tiny bit iffy). No matter. MEN DON’T LEAVE certainly deserved to be a bigger hit, financially and critically, than it was. Luckily, it’s finally been released on DVD by Warner Archives, so we can all settle this score properly now. 

Mindwalk (1990, Bernt Capra)
To my mind, this is the king walk-and-talk movie of all time (even better than Richard Linklater’s BEFORE trilogy, to my mind). The set-up is exceedingly simple: Sam Waterston is an ambitious American politician visiting his friend, poet John Heard, in rural France, seeking refuge from the machinations of Washington and wondering whether he’s doing the right thing by being in politics in the first place. Heard is somewhat cynical about the whole affair (and about America in general) and doesn’t miss an opportunity to illustrate a bigger picture for his friend. While visiting an ancient castle, they run into a emotionally distant physicist (Liv Ullmann) and she joins in their conversation, providing yet another point of view that pays strict attention to the miraculous nature of the universe. And that’s about it. But what other movie allows us to examine such numerous big ideas, among them the value of poetry, the ideals of public service, and the wonders of the atom, in a short 90 minutes? And with the participation of three excellent actors at their peak powers, while backdropped by glorious French locales? Bernt Capra’s MINDWALK is a singular film; there’s not anything quite like it.. It will get your brain joyously whirring in no time at all.

NEXT WEEK: Ten more underrated dramas from my files!