Underrated Movie #89: Below

Title: Below
Year: 2002
Director: David Twohy
Writers: Lucas Sussman & Darren Aronofsky and David Twohy
Stars: Bruce Greenwood, Olivia Williams, Matthew Davis, Holt McCallany, Zach Galifianakis 
The Story: During World War II, a stir-crazy American submarine crew rescues the survivors of a British medical ship, but before they can get to shore, they come to fear that they are haunted by an malevolent spirt—a spirit that won’t be satisfied until it reveals a horrible secret held by certain members of the crew.
How it Came to be Underrated: The Weinsteins can do a great job distributing a movie, when they feel like it, but they’re more often happy to consign it to the briny deep. After Aronofsky decided he wasn’t going to direct this one himself, Harvey and Bob never regained interest and dumped the final product quietly, which is a shame since it’s an effective little thriller.

Why It’s Fun:
  1. This was the first time I noticed a forceful young actor named Holt McCallany, and he’s shown up occasionally since, but he hasn’t achieved the stardom he deserves. In the fall he’ll star in a well-pedigreed boxing show on FX, so hopefully that will finally be his big break.
  2. Unfortunately, though most of the ensemble cast is great, what hurt the movie the most was that the actual hero is played by a bland Cary Elwes lookalike named Matthew Davis. Of course, the script does him no favors—the character has no special skills!
  3. I’ve tried to write “ghost who wants to expose an injustice” movies before and been stymied by a problematic question: are we rooting for the ghost or not? After all, the ghost is also endangering our heroes, who didn’t know about the injustice, but we want the truth to come out. This movie sidesteps those issues neatly, keeping the focus on the interpersonal and naval conflicts, relegating the supernatural to an elemental, unpersonified force.
  4. The conspiracy is handled well. The trick with conspiracy movies is that it has to be something that can come undone slowly. The heroes should only see a little problem at first, unraveling a string of little lies, one by one. The conspirators are the able to admit bits along the way, adjusting their story to stay out in front of the ultimate truth. The danger is that you wind up with one big “everything you know is wrong” reveal and the rest of the movie just lies there. Inevitably, you’ll have to reveal that big twist in the trailer, and then you’re left with nothing.
  5. And one more tricky area that’s handled well: one problem with a setting like a submarine is that you have to explain everything that could go wrong before it happens, which kills the surprise. This movie does a good job casually mentioning potential dangers-- just enough so that we’ll see recognize the big problems as soon as they actually come up.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: I’ve had an appreciation for the perpetually underused Bruce Greenwood ever since he spiced up the last two seasons of “St. Elsewhere” as a sociopathic intern. Around this time he was also great as President Kennedy in Thirteen Days.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and Watch Instantly. I discovered this on DVD just after it came out and then listened to the lively commentary, which has everybody joking around in one room. I found it odd at the time that they let a guy with a pretty small part talk so much but he was very funny, so I started paying attention to Zach Galifianakis. That man is now America’s sweetheart.

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Underrated Movie #82: Terminal Velocity

Welcome to day 2 of Cheesy Movies Week. I should make it clear here that each selection will get cheesier and more disreputable all week long. That's right: Hard Rain was the classy one.

Title: Terminal Velocity
Year: 1994
Director: Deran Sarafian (who?)
Writer: David Twohy
Stars: Charlie Sheen, Nastassja Kinski, James Gandolfini

The Story: Sheen is “Ditch Brody”, a hotshot skydiving instructor with a sketchy safety recond. Kinski seems to be a nervous student, but then she dies in her first jump—or so it appears… Pesky D. A. Gandolfini is ready to prosecute, but Sheen realizes that nobody is what they seem. Soon he and not-so-dead-Kinski find themselves in an escalating series of death-defying scrapes with various Russian bad guys.

How it Came to be Underrated: This had to compete against an inferior Wesley Snipes skydiving thriller that came out at the same time. Neither one made much money. Also, it has Charlie Sheen in it, so nobody was ever going to take it seriously, which is understandable, really...

Why It’s Great Cheesy Fun:

  1. CGI has ruined action movies in so many ways. First, it always looks flatter and emptier than model work. Secondly, models, though small, are still affected by gravity and other laws of physics, which the CGI guys can never bother to re-create. Third, and most importantly, when you had to shoot a stunt to get the shot, the audience knew that someone was actually jumping out of an airplane, even if it was just a stuntman with a bad wig. We weren’t just watching a character do it, we were also watching a real person do it too (albeit in different circumstances than we saw on screen). Nobody knew it at the time, but this movie was right at the end of the golden age of stuntwork.
  2. And the stunts in this movie are just insanely thrilling. It all culminates in scene where Kinski is locked in the trunk of a car that is pushed out the back of a plane. Sheen has to get her out in mid-air. I dare any jaded movie-snob to not pump your fist in the air and should “hell yeah” at the end of that one.
  3. But here’s the big problem with this movie: I talked before about how much more heroic it is if the hero is trying to save his community and not just get revenge, but the opposite situation is even more problematic. The hero has to have some connection to the people he’s saving. In this movie, an Arizona sky-bum realizes he has to stop a bunch of spies in order to save the Russian economy. Sorry, but we’ll never believe that he would care about that. Sheen obviously doesn’t believe it himself.
  4. When The Sopranos hit, I, like everybody else, was wondering where the hell James Gandolfini had come from. I was surprised to realize that I’d actually seen him play the heavy in a half-dozen movies without ever knowing it was the same guy, which is to his credit. He disappeared into each role until he finally found his opportunity to be a star.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Twohy later wrote and directed a neat little WWII submarine ghost story called Below. The only real competitor I think this movie had for bragging rights to the best aerial stuntwork was an underrated Timothy Dalton James Bond movie, The Living Daylights.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD.

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