Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Mike Flynn

Mike Flynn is a journeyman of sorts. Writer, salesman, son, brother, film lover, karaoke wildman—he has quite the variety of talents. Holding a B.A. in Communication Arts with a writing focus from Ramapo College of New Jersey, he spends many a night watching awful action movies, some barely released theatrically or not at all. Above all, he is a smart, well-spoken man. He has many projects in the pipeline, but his most accessible at the moment is The Pleasuredome, a new blog where he writes not only about film but about the entire spectrum of pop culture. You can subscribe to him on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/theflynnferno, or follow his Twitter feeds, @MikeDrewFlynn and @ElPleasuredome.
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Stay Hungry (1976, dir. Bob Rafelson)
Even away from his contributions from the groundbreaking BBS Productions, Bob Rafelson ported over the character quirks of New Hollywood into this nature-versus-nurture study. Jeff Bridges is predictably wonderful as an adult orphan—sent to close down a gym by a corrupt real estate company—and ends up being seduced by the scene. Sally Field is fantastic as a fellow young Alabaman who Bridges falls for, but it’s the official acting debut of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a semi-autobiographical performance that steals the show. His turn as Joe Santo isn’t the cigar-chomping, gun-toting, pun-spewing stereotype we’d later associate him with: he’s a sensitive, charismatic bodybuilder whose code of fitness is almost samurai-like. Rafelson ties the action together with the same slice-of-life finesse he provided to Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, offering up a counteraction to the Me decade where money does not make the measure of a man—personality does.

Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978, dir. Karel Reisz)
This cynical, unflinching take on the posttraumatic fatigue and violence of the era is sadly less well known as 1978’s other two major works on the subject—The Deer Hunter and ComingHome—yet it is every bit as good as those films. Nick Nolte's work here as Ray Hicks, a Vietnam vet smuggling a cache of heroin bigger and more dangerous than he thinks, is wondrous and well establishes him as one of the most hardened, masculine actors of his generation. Cocksure but not emotionally distant, his tumultuous journey to help his war buddy John Converse (a heartbreaking performance by Michael Moriarty) and wife Marge (a similarly resounding Tuesday Weld) makes for a shattering allegory for the war while playing into its characters' involvement.
Today, this film would probably come out closer to something like Man on Fire or Savages, with an intensified visual style and the action dialed up beyond a series of tense verbal confrontations and drug binges. Though its climax does take on the identity of a proto-First Blood, the majority of the action is psychologically devastating, riveting work.

Heaven’s Gate (1980, dir. Michael Cimino)
A visionary epic of the American West, as majestic as it was horrific. Separated of its stigmatizing behind-the-scenes reputation, this is flat-out brilliant, magnetic in its sheer beauty, technical prowess and ambition. Michael Cimino uses the backdrop of the Johnson County War as a historical allegory for the Vietnam War to riveting effect, positioning the tyranny of the cattle barons and the oppression against the immigrants with a strong parallel without making the connection blatant. Its effects are reflected through Kris Kristofferson's affecting performance as conflicted marshal Jim Averill, whose eye to the American Dream is quickly shattered by the emerging corruption in Wyoming.
That Cimino never inherently designates heroes and villains highlights the New Hollywood greatness of the film further. Certainly, Averill is the protagonist, but he is not designated to be heroic. Even Christopher Walken's menacing union enforcer has a heart of gold, and being Averill's love triangle rival only brings them closer thanks to the battle. Cimino's perfectionism may have been a kind of madness, but it produced a method and a masterpiece.

The World According to Garp (1982, dir. George Roy Hill)
In translating John Irving’s novel to screen comes an idiosyncratic eye for whim, foreshadowing and irony, a tragicomic masterpiece that displays a full gamut of emotion without overwhelming or confusing the audience. For his entire career, Robin Williams has danced on the line between  hyperactive comedian and a magnetically compelling dramatic actor, and no film has better married both of his distinctive talents as T.S. Garp (that’s Technical Science, Terribly Sexy or Terribly Sad depending on the moment), bastard child of the Baby Boom. His journeys are a soul-opening trip into the strongest reaches of humanism, an unflinching meditation on the unpredictability of life. Not only is there possible career-best work from Williams, there’s at least another half-dozen tour de force performances in the film: Mary Beth Hurt as Garp's bookish but harried wife. Amanda Plummer as a tongueless rape victim whose forced silence inspires a bizarre niche of feminists.Essential work from John Lithgow as a transsexual football player-turned-feminist who retains physical gravitas despite his motherly nature. Glenn Close is unforgettable and magnetic as Garp's compassionate but shrewd, disturbingly omnipresent and attached mother. A cinematic landmark.

Dudes (1987, dir. Penelope Spheeris)
This punk neo-Western is a sublime and unique vision lost in time. Jon Cryer and Daniel Roebuck play a pair of New York losers whose aspirations to hit L.A. go awry when their friend (Flea!) gets murdered by highway killers. What ensues is a quotable but ideological odyssey into the way they wrestle with the American Dream: the pursuit of a scenery change in California or avenging their friend. Surreal encounters with the apparition of an outlaw and help from a bullfighting Elvis impersonator ensue, but the chemistry between Cryer and Roebuck is remarkable and drives home the heart of the story. The soundtrack is a brilliant time capsule.

Tapeheads (1988, dir. Bill Fishman)
Somewhere between the joyous, sharp bite of This is Spinal Tapand the flamboyance of The Adventures of Ford Fairlane is this eccentric lampoon of the MTV-fortified record industry. John Cusack and Tim Robbins are uproarious as Ivan and Josh, would-be auteurs of the music-video scene in Los Angeles. Its acerbic sense of humor is as intellectually tinged as it is filled with Dadaist non-sequiturs: think Alex Cox by way of ZAZ. These guys frown upon what society is dictating to them, to ascend to the kind of white-collar positions they abhor. Their only ethics are to break the confines of conformity and make their voices, however non-commercial and scheming they are, loud enough to achieve notoriety.
Like its heroes, the movie plays dirty and refuses to aim straightly at its premise, veering off into tangential sequences with little bearing on the greater picture of the film but only more suited to its weird charm. Only in this film will you find a middle-aged man dressed in Run DMC apparel rapping about Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles, cemetery blowjobs, Bobcat Goldthwait using his normal voice as a motivational speaker, Swedes lip-syncing Devo, Jessica Walter as a would-be First Lady named Kay Mart, government hitmen with a weakness for singing and dancing, and the female leads fighting each other with butterfly knives and nunchuks.

White of the Eye (1988, dir. Donald Cammell)
What a movie this one is. White of the Eye could be easily classified as “slasher noir,” transcending the firm-ruled repetition of slasher films with the moody, disturbed characteristics of film noir. Films like ManhunterJack’s Back,The Silence of the Lambs and Seven have evoked this rare cross-genre, but few have been as stylistically and thematically bizarre as Donald Cammell’s woefully underseen Southwestern nightmare. Sadly, Cammell never worked much throughout his career. I cite Performance as a personal favorite of mine, and here, he opens with a shattering thunderclap of elegant violence that would make Brian De Palma curdle. From there, we learn the life that ideal couple David Keith and Cathy Moriarty have taken on is a damning lie, a front for the terrifying side hobby that Keith’s audiophile has taken on. The score—a collaboration between 10cc’s Rick Fenn and Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason—is as atmospheric and moody as the era could possibly allow, undercutting the dry, disturbed heat that swelters among and within Cammell’s film.

Bullet in the Head (1990, dir. John Woo)
If the Better Tomorrow films were his Mean Streets and The Killer was his Taxi Driver, then John Woo's two-fisted (well, two-gunned), ruthless alternative perspective of the Vietnam War is his Goodfellas. Gritty in its portrayal of a criminal underworld in Saigon and shocking in the emotional toll it takes on its three protagonists, Woo's poetry of violence runs smoothly with the undercurrent of a dark time in history and provides a more spiritual antidote to the cynical patriotism of American Vietnam-based films of the late 80's. Some of the Tienanmen Square parallels feel shoehorned in retrospect to its original release, but the result is a masterpiece of war, action and crime drama that is unafraid to provide crowd-pleasing mayhem amidst the deep drama.

Mad Dog and Glory (1993, dir. John McNaughton)
Coming from the director whose other noted works had been a not-so-heartwarming family drama (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) and a weirdly sleazy alien-amok slasher (The Borrower), it's a revelation that McNaughton turns out a bittersweet, offbeat romantic comedy that steps over the conventions of the genre at every step of the way. Robert De Niro gives one of his most underrated performances as a milquetoast Chicago cop with aspirations to be a photographer. Further moving towards the cult hero and carefree journeyman that's elevated him from man to legend, Bill Murray flips his charmingly sardonic persona for Frank Milo, a sinister mobster whose stand-up comedy aspirations are a thin disguise for his brutish conduction of business. Uma Thurman is sexy without end and a delightful female lead as the wounded but desperate for love Glory. Price, a hero for his contributions to The Wire as well as The Color of Money and Sea of Love, does wonders with his screenplay, at once a quirky deconstruction of police procedurals, gangster films and romantic comedies that seamlessly crosses over all of those genres. No one is unafraid to show vulnerability, and it's that quality that makes this an unsung classic.
Great acting, laid-back direction, a fun script, not much else to ask for. Brilliant stuff.

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993, dir. Steven Zaillian)
Rarely, "inspirational" films come along that actually have that said effect without manipulating emotions as audience service. This is profoundly one of those films. The true story of 7-year-old chess prodigy Josh Waitzkan (played brilliantly by Max Pomeranc, who seems to be been in hiding like Bobby Fischer actually was for much of his life) is a personally resounding and heartwarming crowd-pleaser that gives kids a relatable and strong hero their age and the adults a riveting drama about genius and obsession. Ben Kingsley, Joe Mantegna, Laurence Fishburne and Joan Allen all give outstanding performances (especially the former two as a strict chess mentor and Josh's father, respectively). Zaillian's script pops with snappy dialogue and a soaring story and his direction goes beautifully hand in hand with the legendary Conrad Hall's striking cinematography, amplifying Washington Square to a majestic space of urban sprawl. Zaillian got the most praise this year for Schindler’s List, but he powered just as much triumph from this sleeper.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Planet of the Vampires (1965, dir. Mario Bava), Busting (1974, dir. Peter Hyams), Rancho Deluxe (1974, dir. Frank Perry), Sugar Hill (1974, dir. Paul Maslansky,) The Super Cops (1974, dir. Gordon Parks), Last Embrace (1979, dir. Jonathan Demme), Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981, dir. Daniel Petrie), The Border (1982, dir. Tony Richardson), Get Crazy (1983, dir. Allan Arkush), Turk 182! (1985, dir. Bob Clark), The Men's Club (1986, dir. Peter Medak), China Girl (1987, dir. Abel Ferrara), Down Twisted (1987, dir. Albert Pyun), The Witches of Eastwick (1987, dir. George Miller), Tiger on Beat (1988, dir. Chia-Liang Liu), Cohen and Tate (1989, dir. Eric Red), Dead Calm (1989, dir. Philip Noyce), Kill Me Again (1989, dir. John Dahl), Let It Ride (1989, dir. Joe Pytka), The Return of Swamp Thing (1989, dir. Jim Wynorski), Warlock (1989, dir. Steve Miner), Blood Games (1990, dir. Tanya Rosenberg), Flashback (1990, dir. Franco Amurri), American Me (1992, dir. Edward James Olmos), Hoffa (1992, dir. Danny DeVito), Fire in the Sky (1993, dir. Robert Lieberman), The Paper (1994, dir. Ron Howard), Reality Bites (1993, dir. Ben Stiller), Wolf (1994, dir. Mike Nichols), Metro (1997, dir. Thomas Carter), Night Falls on Manhattan (1997, dir. Sidney Lumet).

1 comment:

  1. When I saw "Bullet in the Head," I immediately wanted to tell everyone I knew about it - and then realized that I didn't know anyone that would watch it. It's still one of my favoite films.

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