Rupert Pupkin Speaks: 20 Favorite Underrated Dramas - Dean Treadway(pt.1) ""

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 filmicability.blogspot.com) 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.

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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!

1 comment:

SteveQ said...

Good list, but Abigail's Party is a comedy... a very very very dark comedy. Interested to see Pt. 2.