Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Dramas - James Napoli ""

Friday, August 30, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - James Napoli

James Napoli is a writer, award-winning filmmaker and a film educator. As a humorist, he is the author of The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm, blogs on the Huffington Post, and is the creator of the Internet self-help parody persona Mr. Paul Maul. You can visit for more info.
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Well, thanks again to Rupert for allowing me to contribute to his ever-growing lists of awesomeness. Despite my long history with comedy, I love (and write) a lot of drama, so to be asked to pick a few underrated movie dramas was particular satisfying.

The late George Hickenlooper directed a noir homage not so much in the Double Indemnity or Out of the Past vein, but more akin to Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, the 1950 Humphrey Bogart vehicle about an embittered writer caught up in something that threatens to consume him. The script for Elysian Fields came seemingly out of nowhere from Phillip Jayson Lasker, a writer and producer of sitcoms like The Golden Girls who clearly had a lot more inside him than television could contain. And Lasker mines his story of a failed writer drawn into a web of sex and cynicism for all the Lonely Place vibe it can muster.

Andy Garcia plays Byron Tiller, a happily-married but broke novelist who, against his better judgment becomes a gigolo in a company run by Luther Fox (played by Mick Jagger in a fantastic, compassionate turn). Byron ends up servicing the wife of an aging legendary novelist (James Coburn) who wants Byron to co-write his final book. Within the layers of deception in the plot are strong themes of the deceptions we engage in with ourselves. Hickenlooper directs in a straightforward style, letting the outstanding cast (including Julianna Margulies, Olivia Williams and the always amazing Angelica Huston) move the story along with their subtle performances. The Man From Elysian Fields is a rare find, made by smart people and acted by an inspired ensemble who, ironically given the subject matter, were clearly drawn to the work of an excellent writer.

Released the same year as American Beauty and with a far more subtle and unsettling indictment of suburban angst at its core, Hampton Fancher’s The Minus Man is one of those miracle movies that the conventional wisdom says should not have been allowed to happen. Fancher, co-writer and co-Executive Producer of Blade Runner over fifteen years prior, already 60 years old and writing his screenplay based on an obscure novel, then attaching the not-yet-household name Owen Wilson to star…such a combo hardly seems the slam-dunk package that would have made investors, even indie investors, drool. But to anyone who grooves on intelligent, offbeat cinema that defies categorization, it is easy to see why.

Wilson plays Vann, a genial tabula rasa of a guy who just happens to be a serial killer whose preferred weapon is a fast-acting poison. In adapting Lew McCreary’s chilling book, Fancher, to his everlasting credit, never invites those chills with anything but the everyday. So, the story becomes fertile ground for an exploration of the superficiality of most human interaction, the pent-up pain carried by so many outwardly normal people, and the slow deaths some of us opt for rather than stare at ourselves for very long.

Fancher, a real actor’s director (he is a working actor himself), gets just the right tone out of his cast to make sure these themes are scratching at the walls of their psyches, revealing much without explicitly stating anything. Plus, Owen Wilson is really, really good as Vann. With just the right combination of guilelessness and boyish, aw-shucks enthusiasm, he makes it clear why people project anything they want onto him. This film is nothing more than a detached, casual observer to its own dark, frightening and often painfully sad events. In lesser hands, being casual about such disconcerting stuff could send things off the rails. But The Minus Man stays right on track, and it is, like Vann himself, waiting for you to come on board and lose yourself inside it.

When Robert De Niro appeared on Inside the Actor’s Studio, he was, as are all of James Lipton’s guests on that program, subjected to the ten-question personality test that concludes each interview. When Lipton asked him “what is your favorite word?” De Niro replied, “Refinement.”

It is not surprising that this bit of ephemera got dislodged from my cerebral cortex while revisiting Falling in Love, the 1984 romantic drama in which De Niro co-starred with Meryl Streep. The film is refinement at twenty-four frames per second. Its painstakingly naturalistic exploration of two people gradually realizing they are gaga for each other (even though they are both already married to someone else) finds depth and complexity in that most simple of premises. Writer Michael Cristofer’s tale of a man and woman who share the same New York commuter train cannot help but be a nod to the 1940’s Brit classic Brief Encounter, but the immediacy brought to the proceedings by the unhurried and deeply felt performances of De Niro and Streep quickly reclaims this territory as its own. Add to the mix Ulu Grosbard, a director who had been quietly making some of the best films of the last decade or so (Straight Time and True Confessions [another contender for this list!] came just prior), and you get a transcendent romance that lets the scenes play out just as they should, never shying away from the miniscule moments that carry so much weight in the inner lives of its besotted and remarkably real characters.

What if there was a musical that was more like one of the tough-minded independent directorial visions of late 1970’s cinema, a musical that was more like a film noir, a musical that plunged the viewer straight into a troubling dreamscape of metaphors for all the lies a nation can tell itself in order to survive? That musical has happened, though it came and went over thirty years ago, and it was called Pennies From Heaven. It hit screens in 1981 and baffled audiences who were fresh off Steve Martin’s ‘wild and crazy guy’ and starring role in The Jerk, as well as director Herbert Ross’s more widely known work on charming Neil Simon romantic comedies like The Goodbye Girl and California Suite. The script is a pared-down version of Brit TV phenom Dennis Potter’s multi-part series of the same name that had Bob Hoskins in Steve Martin’s role. MGM, the studio known for its musicals, chose to make this their first one in almost thirty years. With all this in mind, nothing could have prepared filmgoers for the work of art at which cast and crew were clearly at the top of their game making—an excursion into a Depression-Era America fraught with broken dreams and man’s inhumanity to man. Even today, one needs to settle into this astonishing filmmaking achievement by buckling in for an emotionally draining and metaphorically rich ride.

Tom Tykwer’s third feature is actually a deeper, more complex film than the equally brilliant Run, Lola Run. The Princess and the Warrior is part heist movie, part psychological drama, part romance, part character study…a lot of parts, which are beautifully integrated into a cohesive whole. How much you enjoy this film will depend on how much you believe that each of us is trapped in a psychosexual prison of our own making, and that until we can escape it, we will never be whole. It’s all very heady, even goofy stuff worthy of a weekend new-age expo, but Tykwer’s assured and unpretentious hand unifies all the disparate elements, and the message of self-empowerment, into a hugely satisfying cinematic experience.

Franka Potente (Lola herself) returns as Sissi, an inward, unformed soul who works as a live-in nurse at a mansion-like, countryside psychiatric facility that offers group therapy sessions clearly reminiscent of Cuckoo’s Nest. When a letter from a former colleague whose mother has just died asks Sissi to fetch an estate item from a safe deposit box at the local bank, Sissi (in one of the most raw and intense scenes you will ever witness) crosses paths with Bodo (Benno F├╝rmann), another quiet but far more volatile soul. After a lot of missed connections, they do meet up for what turns out to be a surreal and cerebral adventure. Tykwer lets the story go at a leisurely pace, yet achieves real tension by engaging us completely in the inner lives of his characters. With its dreamlike storytelling, so much of The Princess and the Warrior lingers in the memory. It will leave you thinking about what self-imposed jail you might be living in, and how best to dig your way out of it.


Richard Basehart (of He Walked By Night and La Strada) plays Robert Cosick, a 20-something guy who steps onto the ledge outside his Manhattan hotel room and gradually involves the entire city in the drama of whether or not he will jump. As earnest but wrong-headed police and psychiatrists congregate in his room, the gawkers gathering on the street below also live out the drama: cab drivers cynically take bets on what time the fellow will off himself; a young couple meets and begins a courtship. Meanwhile, in a building across the street, another couple is in a lawyer’s office, intent on divorce. The estranged wife is played by Grace Kelly in her very first film role—and it is hard to say whether the command of the screen she has comes from hindsight or an early gift. Ossie Davis (Bubba Ho-Tep fans take note) also makes his first screen appearance as one of the cab drivers.

Soon, we realize that Fourteen Hours is not so much about will he, but why he. As more and more chaos surrounds the tragic figure of Robert—his hysterical mother (transcendent as always Agnes Moorhead), ineffectual father (Robert Keith) and jilted girlfriend (wonderful Barbara Bel Geddes) all appear to try and get him off the ledge—the only person that seems to be able to get to the young man is Charlie Dunnigan, the traffic cop who stumbled upon him in the first place. As Charlie, Paul Douglas, affable character actor of the 1940’s and 50’s, anchors the proceedings and sets up the chasm that divides the “normal” world and the tormented mind of the suicidal man.

Cinematographer Joe McDonald resists the shadows of noir in order to keep the daytime activity on the ledge more realistic. Only when night hits do we see some of those signature dark corners. But the film is full of great shots juxtaposing the media vultures with the unfolding drama, using reflections of the jumper in windows to heighten the look and finding a variety of angles on the ledge to keep things interesting. McDonald and veteran director Henry Hathaway (Call Northside 777) do an outstanding job of choosing frames which both separate and unite their characters, and the intercutting, between the Hollywood backlot of the ledge and the New York Street scenes below is so impressive that the Art Direction was nominated for an Academy Award. (And Basehart was named Best Actor by the National Board of Review.) It is also worth noting that the film is almost entirely free of a score—only the random noises of the city provide the soundtrack to these tense moments.

Very loosely based on a true event, the film had a darker original ending that was cut after a personal tragedy involving an executive at the studio, so you might correctly perceive that the film wraps up rather clumsily. Don’t let that take away all the greatness that comes before.

I managed to score a DVD of this film during the days when Tower Records were closing down everywhere. I am not sure of its current availability, but it’s worth hunting down.

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