Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Dramas - Charlie Brigden ""

Friday, August 23, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Charlie Brigden

Charlie Brigden's speciality is film scores, which he reviews under the banner of Soundtrek at A self-admitted genre obsessive and lover of trash, he can usually be found watching Jaws knock-offs or on Twitter telling anyone who will listen how great Jerry Goldsmith was.
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MATINEE (Joe Dante, 1993)
In every film he's made, Joe Dante has eagerly displayed his love of not only movies but genre flicks in particular, and this is delightfully conveyed in MATINEE. I'm sure everyone has their favourite movie-about-movies and this is mine, to the point where it feels like it was made for me. While it's generally considered a comedy (and to be sure there's a lot to laugh at), it's also a classic coming of age tale that looks at why we choose to go into a dark room to scare ourselves when there is infinite danger in the real world, in this case the Cuban missile crisis. This adds an extra layer we can relate to, where army brat Gene has to look after his brother while his father is away with the military so he takes him to see monster movies.

There are two scenes that have always stood out to me: the first being when John Goodman's Lawrence Woolsey (director of MANT!) explains how cave paintings of ferocious mammoths were the "first monster movies", told with some wonderful animation and a vibrant Jerry Goldsmith score cue. The second is at the finale, where the theater is in pieces and the image of a mushroom cloud appears on screen, only to sequentially disappear as the projectors shut off. It's a mirror image of life, really - the apocalypse has been stopped, for now. But there's another showing in half an hour.

MIAMI VICE (Michael Mann, 2006)
The thing that always interests me about Michael Mann's MIAMI VICE is the rejection of it based on the fact that it's not a straight translation of the TV show, as if people wanted a parody in the vein of STARSKY & HUTCH. This also proves a lot of people really didn't watch the show as the film is very close, taking story material and dialogue from episodes of the groundbreaking drama. But what I love about the film is that aesthetically, it goes completely the other way from the source material. Mann has always had kind of an obsession with ensuring his movies seem as authentic as possible and in that vein we get a pseudo-documentary of sorts, with Dion Beebe's digital photography making the film look more like an episode of COPS than a glossy Hollywood blockbuster.

It's a big leap of faith for Mann, trusting his audience like that. The film starts in media res with no opening titles, and we're dropped into the middle of an investigation in a loud Miami club. The dialogue used is obscurely technical, we have terms like 'opsec' thrown around, and it absolutely embeds us into their culture. The lack of explanation for terms feels like it should be a roadblock but it's actually liberating, giving a surface layer of realism so we're free to let the story - which is a classic tale of being "in too deep" ripped straight from the TV show - engage us. There is so much to love: the amazing sound design (it's so quiet and yet so loud); great performances; and a killer mix of song and score. The less said about the cheesy nu-metal cover of 'In The Air Tonight' the better, though.

FLIRTING (John Duigan, 1991)
Destined for something bigger than the 'before they were famous' example it's usually referred to as, John Duigan's charming romance continues the, um, continuing saga of Australian teen Danny Embling (Noah Taylor), previously seen in the first part of his sadly incomplete coming of age trilogy, 1987's THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE. Now in an all-male boarding school, Danny is ever the butt of jokes due to his lack of interest in sports and his stutter, but meets a worthy opponent in Thandie Newton's Thandiwe when attending a dance with the girl's school across the water. Of course they fall for each other but it's a troubled time, not least for the British-Ugandan Thandiwe and her parents, notably her activist father. Race itself is not as much as an issue as other films might have tried to make it be, only really dwelled on with the political turmoil in the background and occasional insults from classmates.

There are many curious moments that underline the pair's relationship, with a debate battle that almost counts as a first date as Danny mocks the everlasting school tradition of the over-importance of sports while Thandiwe reveals the sexual undertones of rock 'n roll lyrics, to the horror of her teachers. There's also a certain charm in their attempts to be overly mature in the face of their supervisors and classmates, with Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts amongst them. However, when the wit and almost arrogance of the pair is stripped away there's just a simple and touching love story of two people who seek solace in there being no one else to connect to but each other. As with many great love stories the ending is not particularly happy, but it still manages to finish on a touching and hopeful note. Not to be missed - after all, what other movie has a boxing scene that features Jean-Paul Sartre?

STREETS OF FIRE (Walter Hill, 1984)
I think amongst the circle of film geek friends I know, Walter Hill's 1984 "rock & roll fable" is the perennial underrated movie. This is generally considered amongst us as the greatest film never seen, an incredible powerhouse piece of pop art with a soundtrack that puts every other single 80s movie to shame. At the base of it, it's a western: Willem Dafoe and his biker gang kidnap singer Diane Lane from her homecoming concert, and ex-boyfriend Michael Paré has to head into enemy territory to rescue her, along with current boyfriend Rick Moranis (in a straight role) and mercenary Amy Madigan.

The film has such an intoxicating atmosphere, set in "another time, another place" as indicated by a title card, it's a mix of MTV pop aesthetic, 1940s tough guys, greasers and diners from the fifties. Everything seems deliberately anachronistic, giving it a timeless feel that you can't really pin down. The music is similarly idiosyncratic; the action is moved along by Ry Cooder's bluesy guitar score (sadly unreleased) and there are some great bar tunes from Dave Alvin and The Blasters, but it's dominated by Lane's gorgeous Ellen Aim and her Jim Steinman-composed Wagnerian rock opuses that bookend the film. It's just a blast, and maybe with its upcoming Blu-ray release it might get a long-awaited re-evaluation.

WATERSHIP DOWN (Martin Rosen, 1978)
If the 1978 animated adaptation of Richard Adams' novel was a tabloid headline, it'd be 'The Cartoon That Scarred The World'. You can't mention it to anyone here in England with them complaining about how it scared them to death as kids. Nevertheless, it's a stellar film with a voice cast to die for, including John Hurt, Nigel Hawthorne, Denholm Elliott, Ralph Richardson, and even Zero Mostel. A simple tale of a group of rabbits leaving their warren to find a new home, there are all kinds of overtones here (not least with the fascist officers of the new warren, essentially a metaphor for the SS) but it reads primarily as warning about the ruining of the British countryside by the industrial sector.

Certainly some of the quite disturbing images of the film - young protagonist Fiver sees visions of fields of blood and warrens being filled in - do give a weight and gravity to the hyperbolic myths of psychological scarring, but there is a lot of beauty in the film, not least the bucolic and moving score by the late Angela Morley. It's a film about determination, about a group taking action for self-preservation and working together. It's also a film about letting go, as evidenced by the relationship between Fiver and his brother Hazel and the former's dependence on the latter, culminating in the "Bright Eyes" scene with Fiver chasing the ethereal Black Rabbit of Death. WATERSHIP DOWN is absolutely a wonderful film for children, but it's a great picture for adults as well.

1 comment:

Roger said...

A great list. I agree that Miami Vice is true to the spirit rather than to the letter of the original series. No pastels, no wisecracking, just the sense of dread and immoral quicksand.

And for the record, "In The Air Tonight" was dropped in for the "director's cut" just before the final gun battle, a decision Mann had originally resisted. The "true" version (if you can call the theatrical version that) makes it a point not to evoke Collins.