Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Dramas - Eric J. Lawrence ""

Friday, August 16, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Eric J. Lawrence

Eric J. Lawrence is a DJ and music librarian over at the great KCRW. I am a longtime fan of his show(more than 10 years) and his taste in films. I always appreciate it when he takes the time to contribute a list to one of my series.
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Umberto D (Vittorio De Sica, 1952)
It’s hard to imagine one of the defining works of Italian Neorealism as being truly “underrated,” but as Umberto D was one of the last films to be considered in the genre and is often only mentioned as a “B+” when compared to the A-List of films like Bicycle Thieves, Rome, Open City, and La Terra Trema, I’ll say it qualifies. It is the one that sticks with me the most, mainly because of its examination of what it means to be a pet owner. When old man Umberto can no longer keep his apartment due to Italy’s post-war financial woes, he lands in the hospital. By the time he is released, he’s been evicted & his dog has picked up by the pound. He saves his dog, but without a place to live he feels he can’t keep him. He tries to give the dog away, then tries to shoo him away and even considers committing suicide with the dog in his arms. It’s all rather devastating, but in the end the dog’s spirit of life makes Umberto see the light, leaving me in tears in a way that no other Italian Neorealist film has. It is no surprise to me that it was a favorite of Ingmar Bergman, as well as De Sica’s favorite of his own films.

Street Smart (Jerry Schatzberg, 1987)
Christopher Reeve stars as a struggling journalist who, after fabricating a story about a NYC pimp, finds himself caught in the middle of the criminal activities of a real pimp, played with icy menace by Morgan Freeman. For those accustomed to seeing Freeman portray world-weary detectives, the president, God or a kindly chauffeur, it is a bit shocking to see him as the violent, foul-mouthed, Yoo-Hoo swilling Fast Black. But he is perfect in the role, leading to his first Oscar nomination (and all those future, more genteel Morgan Freeman-esque gigs). Kathy Baker also excels as one of Fast Black’s girls, and Mimi Rogers shows up as Reeve’s girlfriend. (My Dinner with Andre fans, take note: Andre Gregory plays Reeve’s magazine-publisher boss!) Schatzberg’s direction is fairly unadorned and Reeve comes off as flat and bland, but that’s part of the point. He is morally empty, willing to break all journalistic conventions to become a TV news hack (the films serves as an interesting 80s precursor to Shattered Glass, the 2003 docudrama about Stephen Glass’ fraudulent magazine articles). It all wraps up a bit too nicely, but ultimately is worth it, if only for Freeman’s performance. Oh, and Miles Davis did the score!

The Rapture (Michael Tolkin, 1991)
Tolkin is best known as a screenwriter of such diverse favorites as The Player, Deep Cover and Gleaming the Cube, but his directorial debut is one of the best apocalypse movies of all time. Mimi Rogers (again!) plays a burnt-out woman in search of some fulfillment (her work as a telephone operator certainly doesn’t qualify, and her “swinger” lifestyle isn’t helping either). When she stumbles on a mysterious, vaguely Christian religious sect, she thinks she’s found an answer. But when their spiritual teachings become literal, she has to make choices about how free will works in a fundamentalist world. A pre-X-Files appearance David Duchovny can’t help but up the conspiracy angle, but the film truly works as a no-holds-barred examination of religion and what it asks of its adherents, not to mention being eerie entertainment.

The Whole Wide World (Dan Ireland, 1996)
A quiet little biopic about an oversized character, The Whole Wide World tells the story of the relationship between Conan the Barbarian creator & pulp fiction legend Robert E. Howard and the rural Texas schoolteacher Novalyne Price he befriends. Basically a two-person show, the film stars Vincent D’Onofrio and Renee Zellweger, both of whom I often find annoying. But here they slot in nicely as a 1930s-era couple feeling their way through a romantic relationship doomed to never quite gel. Zellweger brings an earthy prissiness to her role, while D’Onofrio’s natural hammy tendencies perfectly fit the bluster of a momma’s boy who can only really come out of his introversion through the written word. Given that Howard was the guy who basically invented the “sword & sorcery” genre, it must have been tempting to the filmmakers to include some pulpy fantasy sequences to represent Howard’s work. But restraint prevails (excepting the most tasteful of visions), and the film is the stronger for it.

Shaft (John Singleton, 2000)
Cultural significance aside, the 1971 original was not much more than a gritty detective story. And this version (technically a sequel, as Richard Roundtree briefly reprises his role as John Shaft) is, at heart, not much more than a glossier take on a 70s gritty detective story. There’s a subtle message about one’s struggle to truly fit in in a supposedly multicultural world. But it is the cast that makes this one stand out for me. Samuel L. Jackson is always watchable, Toni Collette is impressive as the murder witness on the run, and Christian Bale and Jeffrey Wright are a perfect villainous double-act. Yes, Busta Rhymes provides unnecessary comic relief, and Vanessa L. Williams is more eye-candy than convincing detective. But there are a metric ton of enjoyable brief roles & cameos throughout the film that should appeal to cinematic trainspotters, from veteran Pat Hingle’s crusty judge to Lynne Thigpen’s grieving mother to Dan Hedaya’s crooked cop to Mekhi Phifer’s murder victim, not to mention familiar faces such as Angela Bassett, Isaac Hayes, The Wire’s Sonja Sohn & Andre Royo, Elizabeth Banks, football legend Lawrence Taylor and the original film’s director Gordon Parks popping up as well. Call it an action movie if you must, but it’s an underrated drama to me!

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