Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Underrated Dramas - Jon Abrams ""

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Favorite Underrated Dramas - Jon Abrams

Jon Abrams – no relation to JJ – is a New York-based writer, cartoonist, and committed cinemaniac who wrote the current cover story, about aging action heroes, for Paracinemamagazine, and has been writing a daily column about horror movies this month on Daily Grindhouse.  Jon’s complete work and credits can be found at his site, Demon’s Resume. You can contact him on Twitter as @jonnyabomb.

SCARECROW (1973)
This film was featured on the lead-off Underrated Dramas list by our gracious host, but it’s the very first title that came to mind when I was given the topic of “underrated dramas so I needed to include it on my list also.
SCARECROW is a road-trip buddy movie starring Gene Hackman and Al Pacino, a study in contrasts: Hackman, burly and taciturn, and Pacino, lively and talkative.  The two of them had only recently become stars, Hackman with THE FRENCH CONNECTION and Pacino with THE GODFATHER.  In the next year they would make THE CONVERSATION and THE GODFATHER: PART II, respectively.  Any of the aforementioned films are far better known today thanSCARECROW is, and all of them are great films of course, but none of them have the delicacy and the intimacySCARECROW does.  
SCARECROW is funny, affecting, and sad.  And it’s visually beautiful also:  The cinematography is by VilmosZsigmond (McCABE & MRS. MILLER, ‘nuff said).  Hackman hasn’t been seen on screen in years, and Pacino’s recent movies haven’t been a patch on his classics, but if you love these two great actors, SCARECROW is essential.  

THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (1996)
These things are difficult to measure, but Milos Forman may very well be the most underrated of all the great directors.  You probably know of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and AMADEUS, but you may not know the name of the guy who directed them.  One likely reason is that, after the 1960s and 1970s, that Forman became much less prolific. He only made two movies in the 1990s, both of them biopics of notorious American boundary-breakers.  One, 1999’s MAN ON THE MOON, starred Jim Carrey as the elusive comedian Andy Kaufman.  
The other was THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, about the controversial publisher of the magazine Hustler, the X-rating to Playboy’s hard-R, a man who took on the religious right over obscenity charges and who was eventually paralyzed by a would-be assassin’s bullet.  Scott Alexander and LarryKaraszewski (ED WOOD) wrote the brilliant script, which does the difficult job of spanning eras with boisterous energy, while Forman’s probing, character-based approach depicts its lead character objectively and humanely.  Whatever you may think of Larry Flynt on a personal level, Forman seems to be saying, he fought the good fight politically.  
The film features a very young Edward Norton as Flynt’sembattled attorney and a much-publicized and quite good turn by Courtney Love as Flynt’s troubled lifelong love.  Typical of Forman, the supporting cast is stocked with a wonderful roster of freaks and weirdos including Crispin Glover, Norm MacDonald, and the late great Vincent Schiavelli.  
But the film ultimately belongs to Woody Harrelson in the title role.  He doesn’t much resemble the real Larry Flynt, but he brings something ineffable to the part, an all-American eccentricity and a raucous warmth, that is essential in achieving the film’s unique ambition, which is to valorize a slimeball.  Larry Flynt may be gross to most, but he fought a fight that needed fighting very much at the time he fought it, and unfortunately it still does today.  This movie eloquently captures the beauty in that.  
THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT shares spiritual kinship with Paul Thomas Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS, which arrived the following year.  Forman’s film is more obviously political, but both films manage to humanize characters who are not generally looked at in such terms.  And both have killer soundtracks.  With respect to WAYNE’S WORLD, there can be no more haunting use of “Dream Weaver” than the way it is used in THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT.

MAD DOG & GLORY (1993)
His fellow cops call Wayne by the nickname “Mad Dog” as a goof.  He’s a pretty contemplative, sensitive type to be working as a crime scene photographer.  One night, after work, Wayne wanders into a convenience store and quickly realizes it’s in the midst of being robbed.  With uncharacteristic heroism, Wayne defeats the robber and rescues the hostages, one of whom is Frank, a loud, mouthy, and brash man who it turns out is a powerful New York mob boss.  As a reward, Frank offers Wayne a questionable but irresistible gift – the company of a pretty bartender named Glory.  Contrary to anyone’s expectations, Wayne and Glory fall in love.  This is bad news.  Glory owes Frank a lot of money.  Wayne and Frank are on a collision course.
This movie was written by the brilliant crime novelist Richard Price, who wrote the scripts for Martin Scorsese’s THE COLOR OF MONEY and the vastly-underrated neo-noir SEA OF LOVE, along with assorted episodes of The Wire.  It was directed by John McNaughton, who had previously made HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, which is one of the most upsetting horror movies ever made and I am not overstating that case in any way.  It stars Robert De Nirothe intense and committed actor who had recently directed his first film, A BRONX TALE, and had recently starred in Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS and CAPE FEAR.  Scorsese produced MAD DOG & GLORY.  All of these credits stated in this way are meant to lead you to believe that Frank, the temperamental, caustic, vicious mobster in MAD DOG & GLORY is played by Robert De Niro.  
That is not the case.
De Niro plays Wayne, the quiet, decent lifelong bachelor.  You might not believe that such a potent, explosive actor could be so great in the role, but he’s completely convincing, folding his charisma up entirely and nearly disappearing into himself.  His demeanor as “Mad Dog” is actually more than anything, reminiscent of De Niro’s notorious stammering and inarticulate press interviews and public appearances.  But in 1993, a short decade after De Niro won the Academy Award for playing a RAGING BULL, this was the definition of playing against type.
So then who do you think plays Frank, the film’s heavy?  Maybe Chazz Palminteri?  Harvey Keitel?  Victor Argo?  RayLiotta?  Al Pacino?
Try Bill Murray.
Yeah.  It’s not an exact switcheroo, but to have Bill Murray in a movie where he consistently intimidates and believably threatens Robert De Niro is unexpected casting, to say the least.  And it works.  Part of it is De Niro’s complete commitment to the role of the vulnerable shnook.  He dials down his own physicality so much that by comparison, Bill Murray’s swaggering alpha-comic persona manages to impose.  Another boon is Richard Price’s highly unusual, affecting script, its tone perfectly carried to screen by the unlikely choice of John McNaughton.  Frank is a gangster who moonlights as a stand-up comedian, which makes Murray a natural fit, but in this role he conveys the potential malevolence of any clown, from Pagliacci through the Joker.  There’s a loneliness, a detachment, a neediness, an emptiness, which is possible in anyone who observes society from a distance in order to lampoon it.  If that goes bad, you get a guy like Frank.  If it goes better, you get a guy like Bill Murray, who was always, always as deserving of the universal accolades he gets today.  It’s just that few people saw how good he is in lesser-remembered movies like this one.  Glad everybody, particularly the critical mainstream, could eventually catch up to how awesome Bill Murray has always been.

THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD (1996)
Here is the story of Novalyne Price, a schoolteacher from Texas, and her two-year friendship/relationship with a man named Bob Howard, who is known to the world as Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan The Barbarian, amongst many other great pulp heroes.
As an R.E. Howard enthusiast, I found this to be a surprising film, in that even though Howard’s work is critically important to the story, it has a very tangential presence.  It matters, in that Novalyne, an aspiring writer, is first drawn to this man due to his reputation as the greatest living writer of pulp stories, and in that his tendency to get lost in his fantastical worlds is a significant obstruction to any romantic possibilities between the two of them – but really, this movie isn’t about Conan or any other famous creation.
This movie is really Novalyne’s story.  For a time she loved Bob, and her time spent with him cast a long shadow over her own life, inspiring her to make her own way as a teacher, and finally inspiring her, at the age of 76, to write the memoir that inspired the events of this movie.
THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD was director Dan Ireland’s first movie, shot on location during Texas summers on a budget, and honestly, all of the above is in evidence.  The movie has a delayed pace endemic to many independent films of the 1990s, and it could probably stand to benefit from crisper editing.  But there is something true in the lead performances of Renee Zellweger (filmed here right before her big break in JERRY MAGUIRE) and the always-reliable Vincent D’Onofrio, something that really makes you care about these two characters.  Ireland’s direction of these actors, in tandem with the script by Michael Scott Myers, shows uncommon care and sensitivity.  The movie is sweet and almost quaint, but also Iis unafraid to confront the dark passages. It says something about this movie that for a while, I watched this relationship between Bob and Novalyne grow, and became invested in it, temporarily forgetting the fact that, with foreknowledge of the sad history to come, there was no way that this story could end happily.
Robert E. Howard was a man of many torments in life, and it is scarcely for me to judge how much that fed his bold, violent, lurid, and kinetic writing, still unparalleled in American literature.  There are plenty of places to find tribute paid to his literary legacy, though; it’s nice also to have this quiet, respectful tribute to Bob Howard as a human being.  Nicer still is the idea that THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD is a tribute to Novalyne Price, a person who posterity would otherwise not remember, a human being who clearly inspired a great artist, and who was in turn inspired by him.

THE INSIDER (1999)
For all his technical experimentation, psychological insight, and sophistication of purpose, Michael Mann is essentially a pulp director.  It’s very rare that he departs from the overarching genres of noir and action.  THIEFMANHUNTERHEAT,COLLATERALMIAMI VICE, and all of his TV work (Crime StoryMiami Vice, and Luck) are all neo-noirs.  LAST OF THE MOHICANS and PUBLIC ENEMIES are history-based action movies.  Even ALI, a biopic of one of the most famous men to have ever lived, could be argued to fit within these bounds as more of a genre film than the standard biopic, since the boxing film has always only been a step away from noir and Mann’s compositions in ALI remain moody and romantic as in any of his other films.
THE INSIDER, then, is perhaps Michael Mann’s most high-minded movie, and on paper, there’s no reason it should be remotely as watchable and rewatchable as it is.   It’s a true story about network TV, newsmagazine journalism, and big tobacco, and yet it’s suspenseful, moving, and entertaining as all hell.  It belongs to the same line as ACE IN THE HOLETHE PARALLAX VIEW, and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, yet ironically it’s more grounded in realism and less dependent on lurid incident than any of them.  There’s only one bullet in all of THE INSIDER, and it isn’t ever seen in motion.  The drama of THE INSIDER comes from depositions and confidentiality clauses, lawyerese and how it makes the layman’s head spin, of good intentions and obfuscations and families straining under corporate pressure.  It’s a thriller where the suspense is primarily internal.  The roiling atmosphere that engulfs the film is stormy and ominous and reflective of the thought processes of the lead characters.
So much of that comes from the robust, dynamic, iconoclastic directing choices of Mann, working with his cinematographer  Dante Spinotti, returning from MANHUNTERLAST OF THE MOHICANS, and HEAT.  Mann and Spinotti enlist their typical blue-gray palette, but this time there are greens and oranges and constantly disarming variations on all of the above — all of which keep the movie from resembling any other ever made. THE INSIDER has an unprecedented look, which separates it from easy comparison, while making it easy on the eyes for its duration.  There’s also a rare intimacy and tactile sensation to THE INSIDER, beginning from the very start, where Al Pacino as 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman is driven to a meeting with a Hezbollah leader — we can almost feel the ridges and pores of the blindfold over his eyes as it ripples with the wind and sunlight flickers through.  You can feel the otherworldliness of a driving range at night, the dampness of a rooftop just after a rain, the warmth of a bar, the isolation of a hotel room.  The movie puts the viewer in these environments, which makes the story feel that much more urgent.
In a word, THE INSIDER is absorbing.  Absorbing.  That happens through unity of disparate crafts.  The musical selection, both of score and soundtrack, is impeccable and distinctive as it ever is with Mann, and the editing style is precise and hypnotic.  The script by Mann and Eric Roth is impeccably-rendered, full of dialogue that is full of truth and untruth and both and neither, and then to deliver it, you have a roster of some of the world’s greatest actors, led by Al Pacino, bellowing but focused in maybe his last truly excellent role to date, Christopher Plummer in his rummiest of cadence as beloved newsman Mike Wallace, and Russell Crowe, who was so ferociously incredible in his transformative role as the title character that the 1999 Oscar voters realized they fucked up by not giving him Best Actor for this movie and corrected the mistake the very next year.
In fact, is there anyone left who is seriously willing to argue that the elected Best Picture that year, AMERICAN BEAUTY, is somehow superior to THE INSIDER as a whole?  I’m sure there is, actually — just don’t try arguing it with me.  I’ll roll you up and smoke you.

TAKE SHELTER (2011)
The cult of this movie has grown as the cult of Michael Shannon has grown.  TAKE SHELTER is the second of the three movies Michael Shannon has so far made with writer-director Jeff Nichols, the first being 2007’s SHOTGUN STORIES and the most recent being this year’s MUD.  Watch all of them, as soon as possible, but since TAKE SHELTER is the first I personally saw, it’s the one I have championed most fiercely.  
In TAKE SHELTER, Michael Shannon plays an Ohio man who is having disturbing premonitions that lead him to believe a storm of unprecedented destructiveness is on the way.  He has a young daughter and a supportive wife, played by Jessica Chastain (ZERO DARK THIRTY), a solid job and a great buddy of a co-worker, played by Shea Whigham(Boardwalk Empire).  He confounds them all by embarking on an increasingly consuming project to build a storm shelter in the backyard which he believes fervently will save the lives of his family.  
In any other hands, this plot could play a bit like Bill Cosby’s old routine about Noah building the Ark.  With a filmmaker as talented as Jeff Nichols, it feels every bit like a Biblical epic, even though, it should be said, there’s a major question as to whether Shannon’s character is less of a meteorologist than a potential mental patient.  The ambiguity looms powerfully over the film, which is ominously and beautifully shot by cinematographer Adam Stone and forcefully scored by David Wingo.  This filmmaking team could certainly put together a redoubtable end-of-the-world disaster film if that’s what they were intending to do.  Of course, that may or may not be what they’re up to, and I’m sure not going to say so one way or another.
You must see this film for yourself, with an emphasis on “MUST,” and not only because of its poetic frightfulness and its acute American-ness.  What makes it an absolute necessity is the central performance by Michael Shannon, which is positively volcanic in its intensity.  Here’s an actor who can make you care, worry, fear, doubt, and believe within the course of a single scene.  He’s astonishing.

NOT FADE AWAY (2012)
Hey, remember The Sopranos?  You know, probably the greatest TV series ever? Remember how observant, how precise, how perceptive, how funny, how unusual it was?  What if I told you that the creator of The Sopranos, David Chase, the man who wrote many of the most memorable episodes of the show, went on to make a feature film?  And that it features the star ofThe Sopranos, the wonderful James Gandolfini, in a major supporting role?  Wouldn’t you want to see that? Why wouldn’tyou want to see that?
NOT FADE AWAY is David Chase’s directorial debut.  If you know one thing about David Chase, it’s how much he loves music.  This movie is positively stuffed with music.  Most of it is great.  Steve Van Zandt was the film’s music supervisor.  That’s one of the greatest curators you could have.  David Chase is clearly a man of taste as well.  The soundtrack is phenomenal.  I said only “most” is great, though, because the story centers around a band of teenage rock wannabes in the 1960s who, believably, aren’t instantly as great as they intend to be.  
William Goldman once stated that one thing movies don’t do well is the passage of time.  NOT FADE AWAY is a rare exception.  Though it is certainly episodic and perhaps spread too far over too many characters, NOT FADE AWAY does an incredible job of spanning decades, covering multiple eras in American music, and showing the changes, developments, and regressions of its lead characters.  Thirty-year-old John Magaro, in the lead role, is particularly impressive as a snot-nosed high-schooler who becomes a sometimes-obnoxious hippie-type and then a more compelling type of young-adult dreamer.  His frequently-contentious relationship with his disapproving father, played by the late, great James Gandolfini, is recognizable and quietly powerful.  When Dad’s validation finally comes, it’s in a minor key, for subtly urgent reasons, which makes it all the more unforgettable.
NOT FADE AWAY is populated largely by unknowns – if you recognize an actor, they generally aren’t in the film much.  Between that and the probability that most people probably wrote it off as a rosy-glow nostalgia piece, it disappeared more quickly than could be expected from the feature debut of such a great pop-culture artist.  There are flashes of the fantastically dark, cynical David Chase humor (i.e. a certain scene involving a motorcycle accident), but mainly NOT FADE AWAYsucceeds on meticulously-observed, elegantly-staged moments of vibrant and sometimes-frustrating humanity.  It deserves a look.  

PROMISED LAND (2012) 
 ​So A-list movie-star Matt Damon and popular TV-star John Krasinski wrote a movie about fracking.  Gus Van Sant directed, with understatement and grace.  I like that this all happened.  I like that here is a movie about something important, but at every single juncture it feels level-headed and humble.  These guys didn’t have to do that.  They’ve got plenty of yards of laurel to rest on.  They could far easier fucked around and maybe made a smart-and-handsome-people version of GROWN UPS.  Instead they made an issue movie, and not a particularly sexy issueeither, unless you’re Sarah Palin and the idea of drill-humping the earth for oil gets you more excited than giving your kids dumb names.  Fracking is death to small towns and murder on the environment, but this is America and there’s money to be made.  I give Damon and Krasinski a metric ton of credit for not only taking on a hot-button topic, but for finding a way to dramatize it.
Damon plays a kind of corporate fixer in this movie, the guy who heads out to small-town America and convinces the locals to sign over their property rights to his company so their acreage can be harvested.  He’s an up-and-comer, partnered with a wizened veteran (Frances McDormand, providing sardonic and dry comic relief), and business is great, until he ends up in a town that reminds him of the one he grew up in.  There he meets a young woman (Rosemarie DeWitt) who may or may not end up being a love interest, but more importantly an elderly science teacher who refuses to sell because unlike his neighbors, he knows that Damon is offering a devil’s bargain.  That role is played by Hal Holbrook, just plain wonderful as the epitome of all-American decency and common sense.  Then Krasinskishows up in the role of Damon’s nemesis, an environmental crusader who launches an all-out charm offensive that screws up Damon’s mojo, romantic and professional both.
This is a modest movie.  It’s not budgeted to be a sweeping epic and Van Sant doesn’t shoot it that way.  This movie doesn’t make its point with thunder and lightning.  The goal is to entertain first and to edify after.  It’s a conversation, not an argument.  It feels like a healthy nudge in the right direction.  The writers are clearly on the right side of the issue, but they magnanimously give the corporate monoliths more than enough space to demonstrate the dissenting opinion.  Instead of feeling like you were hit over the head with a liberal-propaganda baton for two hours, what you’ll remember about PROMISED LANDare the characters.  It’s left up to you to decide if they move you or not.

SMASHED (2012)
In retrospect, it kills me that I didn’t manage to see SMASHED last year.  It absolutely would have clinched for my year-end top ten.  I even know which movie it would have supplanted:  FLIGHT, a movie which covers similar territory.  Like FLIGHT, SMASHED deals with the topic of alcoholism with unusual potency and attention to detail, with an astounding central performance and with harrowing scenes of hitting bottom and going even lower.  Unlike FLIGHTSMASHED has an unsubtle soundtrack that doesn’t threaten to undermine everything else good about the movie.  
Director James Ponsoldt, between SMASHED and this year’s THE SPECTACULAR NOW, has cornered the market on low-fi and true pictures that deal with addiction in surprising, disarming, and sneakily affecting ways.  He wrote SMASHEDwith Susan Burke, and assembled a lovely cast that includes never-fail ringers like Aaron Paul (“Jesse Pinkman” onBreaking Bad), Octavia Spencer (FRUITVALE STATION),Bree Turner, Mary Kay Place, Megan Mullally, and NickOfferman.  Those last two, by the way, I will officially follow to the ends of the earth, due to the fact that everything they do together (Parks & RecreationAxe CopTHE KINGS OF SUMMER) is so resolutely charming. Everyone in the movie is funny, sad, and winning.
But SMASHED is Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s victory most of all.  Already beloved by genre fans for her roles in horror and action movies, she proves definitively that she is one of the most under-utilized great actresses of her generation with her role as Kate, a schoolteacher who decides to get sober despite the fact that her husband and main running buddy (Aaron Paul’s Charlie) isn’t ultimately willing to do the same.  Winstead’s performance isn’t showy or grandiose, which is a sacrifice.  You don’t get fancy awards for underplaying.  Instead, she plays it like a real person.  Kate is a person you could know.  She’s a person you quickly come to care about.  She’s a person you worry about.  She’s a person you can hope for.  That’s more noble.  That’s true acting; playing a part with honesty, without underlining everything for the cheap seats.
I feel so fondly towards this small, sweet, special movie, but I’m not sure I could express myself anywhere near as well as the late, great Roger Ebert did in his review.  Please seek it out – it’s one of the most beautiful pieces he ever wrote, and it will convince you that SMASHED is a film well worth the attention you give it.

2 comments:

Brittani Burnham said...

Great list! Especially Take Shelter and Smashed. Those were two wonderful films. It's been a long time since I've seen The People vs Larry Flynt. I think I need to re-watch that one.

J.D. Lafrance said...

Great list! Love that you included THE INSIDER, which was robbed at the Oscars the year it came out and is oddly underrated despite the marquee names in the cast and it being helmed by Mann.

SMASHED is a fantastic film for sure. Love Mary Elizabeth Winstead and she is so good in this one. I was with her character the entire time and really rooting for her.

Speaking of underrated addiction movies have you ever seen CANDY, starring Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish as junkies. It has a lot of the same qualities of SMASHED and is very underrated and a very engrossing drama. Well worth checking out.