Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Dramas - Jason Chirevas ""

Friday, August 9, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Jason Chirevas

Hey, everyone. Since last we spoke, I’ve become the deputy editor of five community newspapers along the sound shore in New York. In that capacity, I don’t get the opportunity to write about film—classic, overlooked, or otherwise—so I appreciate this chance.

I know a lot of these lists tend toward the international or truly obscure, but I thought I’d take a few moments of your time to highlight five films that might be hiding in plain sight, as it were. If you like this list at all, perhaps you’ll click over to my blog—where we discuss a certain set of genres and subgenres—or follow me on Twitter @JasonChirevas, where movies of all stripes are often the subject.

But, let’s face it; you probably won’t do either of those things, so let’s get on with the list.

5. San Quentin (1937, screenplay by Peter Milne and Humphrey Cobb, directed by Lloyd Bacon) This is not a great movie, let’s get that out of the way right now. However, it does have some things going for it that, when combined, earn it a look if you’ve yet to give it one. First, we’ve got Pat O’Brien in a leading role. That’s good. Second, we’ve got Ann Sheridan. That’s good. Third, we’ve got Humphrey Bogart in a pre-stardom sympathetic role. That’s very good, and rare. And we’ve got a beefy supporting heavy role for Barton MacLane, and that’s fun.

Pat is the new big cheese at the titular prison determined to treat the inmates like people, something guard MacClane is loath to do. Ann is Pat’s girl; Bogie is her hard luck, hard-timing brother. SAN QUENTIN a good little A- movie from one of Warner’s better second, or maybe third, tier directors. Check it out.

We’re going to be hanging out in the 90’s from here, so get your flannel on and darken your outlook on life.
(This movie is available on Warner Archive Instant in 1080p: )

4. Rounders (1998, screenplay by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, directed by John Dahl) He’s settled into television now, but back in the 90’s director John Dahl made a handful of low-budget, noiry crime pictures that were pretty well-regarded. ROUNDERS was his last film of that decade and it’s probably the slickest of Dahl’s 90’s work with the highest-profile cast.

It’s also the most inside poker film ever made, but don’t let that deter you.

Matt Damon plays Mike, a law student and ex-card player who’s trying to walk the straight and narrow after getting cleaned out in a local den of illegal poker. His buddy from the old days, Worm (Edward Norton) is just back from the stir and can’t get out of his own way, or the way of his many creditors. Soon, Worm is well in Mike’s way and Mike finds himself losing his friends, his girl (the always welcome Gretchen Mol) and his mentors on both sides of the law (Martin Landau, John Turturro). It’s not long before Mike realizes the cards, which’ve done nothing but call him since his bad beat, are the only way out of the situation in which Worm has landed him.
If you can get past the pokerese, ROUNDERS is a kinda noiry, kinda crimey good time. If nothing else, you’ll be treated to John Malkovich using the most bizarrely terrible Russian accent of all time.

You’ll also see Famke Janssen, because we used to do things like Famke Janssen back in 1998.

3. 12 Angry Men (1997, screenplay by Reginald Rose, directed by William Friedkin)
On the current list of my top 10 favorite movies of all time, the 1957 12 ANGRY MEN ranks at number seven. But I’ve probably seen this made-for-Showtime remake just as many times.

You know the story, so I’ll just tell you why this one’s worthy. Simply put, every performance in Friedkin’s version is interestingly different from, or actually outdoes, every performance in the original with one critical exception, the central role of Juror 8. In the original, Henry Fonda is struggling from moment one to keeps the pieces of the case straight in his own head well enough to try to make his argument that the accused deserves just a bit more time and consideration from the eleven other jurors. With Fonda, it doesn’t become a quest for justice right away.

Jack Lemmon plays Juror 8 in the remake and, although he is one of the best American actors in cinema history, we get the feeling his Juror 8 knows the boy on trial is innocent right away and it’s just a matter of convincing these other guys they’re wrong, however obstinate and condescending he has to be. I love Lemmon, but Fonda’s performace is better. Minimally, Fonda was so good he left Lemmon with a less desirable avenue if Jack wanted to make the character his own.

Courtney B. Vance, Ossie Davis, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Dorian Harewood, James Gandolfini, Tony Danza, Hume Cronyn, Mikelti Williamson, Edward James Olmos and William Peterson round out the ’97 jury. Each brings something different to the table than his original film counterpart. Danza and Gandolfini in particular do more with their roles than the original cast members (Jack Warden and Edward Binns), which is interesting as the script, by original author Reginald Rose, is largely the same as that of the 1957 film. Best of all though is George C. Scott’s Juror 3. His bluster and rage are a great counterpoint to Lemmon’s calm assuredness.

Interesting side note, this was only the second film in Lemmon’s career, the first being SAVE THE TIGER, that was shot in sequence, which he said allowed him to build a more sustained performance.

To be clear, I don’t recommend this remake to supplant, or even directly compete with, the original. I think instead it’s a companion piece, a reflection, and a fascinating example of what different actors can do with the same basic material.

2. Quiz Show (1994, screenplay by Paul Attanasio, directed by Robert Redford)
If there’s one thing I love, it’s great movie dialog. QUIZ SHOW has some of the best dialog of the last 25 years. And it’s a damn good movie otherwise, too.

Back in the 50’s, before ordinary people humiliated themselves on television for no good reason other than a camera’s presence, people tuned-in by the millions to watch game shows. The human drama and big money prizes contained therein kept viewers on the edge of their seats week after week. One of the most popular game shows was Twenty-One, in which genius-level intellectuals and really smart average Joes amazed with their grasp of impossibly Byzantine questions for thousands upon thousands of dollars on the line.

It was all a fraud, as pre-arranged as one of Gorgeous George’s wrestling matches. But people didn’t know that at the time.

Enter Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow, back when we were doing that), a congressional investigator determined to nail Twenty-One, and television at-large, to the cross for duping the public into believing its shenanigans. To do that, Goodwin has to prove the current Twenty-One champion, Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), is a phony. But it won’t be easy. Van Doren is a Columbia professor, he comes from a famously accomplished family, and, worst of all, he seems like a pretty nice guy. And watching from the wings is Herbert Stempel (there’s John Turturro again), the nebbishy former Twenty-One champ who got dumped back to Queens as soon as the ratings went down and NBC found, in Van Doren, someone people could really get behind.

This all actually happened, by the way.

QUIZ SHOW is a wonderful encapsulation of time and place but, more than anything, it’s a master class study in American hero worship and anti-Semitism. As Stempel says to Goodwin when the two first meet, “How’d a guy like you get into Harvard?” Indeed, Goodwin struggles mightily with what should be his loyalty to Stempel as a fellow Jew and the admiration he feels for Van Doren, who is emblematic of the world of which Dick has always fancied himself a part.

The rest of the cast is phenomenal. David Paymer, Hank Azaria and Christopher McDonald represent the brains, brawn, and face of NBC. Paymer especially excels as the producer out to keep Goodwin, Van Doren and Stempel apart, the public in the dark, the ratings up and the sponsor (an awesome Martin Scorsese) happy. Paul Scofield is a tower of dignity and pride as Mark Van Doren, who wants more than anything for his son to be the titan of university he has been.

But, as I said at the top, it all comes back to the script, which is littered with crackerjack, quotable dialog and keeps the narrative clear and nuanced. Under the direction of Robert Redford, who himself is underrated behind the camera, I think, QUIZ SHOW is the most overlooked mainstream drama of the 90’s in my opinion.

Except for this one…

1. Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993, screenplay by director Steven Zallian)
Steven Zallian was, and is, one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood. This film, a very small, very quiet, very personal drama, was his directorial debut and it is one of the most overlooked, underrated films of which I am aware.

Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) isn’t even 10 years old, but he’s really good at chess. Too good. Freakishly good. And he taught himself. His father (Joe Mantegna), a sportswriter, immediately seizes on the competitive nature of the game. He thinks his son could be one of the all-time greats, the kind of player who, if he swung a bat or tossed a pigskin, would be someone he’d write about in the paper. But Josh’s mother (Joan Allen, is she ever anything but great?) doesn’t see things that way. She sees how Josh is when he plays chess in the park, she sees how much he enjoys the purity and camaraderie bred by drawing a crowd to watch him do the thing he loves to do more than anything.

And then there’s Josh, who, as much as he’s afraid of losing in front of his father in competition, is more afraid of what his chess dominance will do to the other little boys and girls he’ll beat along the way to the top.

Enter Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), a man we get the sense never quite made it as a chess master who now coaches the youngest generation of potential Bobby Fischers. His methods divide Josh’s parents, and his relationship with Josh is, at times, as painful as it is symbiotic and complex.

This is based on a true story, too, by the way, and Laurence Fishburne, Laura Linney, David Paymer, William H. Macy, Dan Hedaya, Josh Mostel, Austin Pendleton, Anthony Heald and Tony Shalhoub are in it, too, to varying degrees so, yeah, see it.

SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER is not a film about chess. It’s a film about fathers, sons, winning, losing, what competition does to us and what we can do to make competing something with which we can live. The sensitivity and innocence Pomeranc and Zallian bring to Josh Waitzkin is alternatively heartbreaking and uplifting. This is a great film and I hope you’ll take the time to watch it if you haven’t.

1 comment:

the Trash Man said...

Despite possessing no talent for either poker or chess, ROUNDERS and SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER are two of my all-time favorite films.

Great to see them included.