Special Guest Picks: The Archive

Hey guys, remember when this used to be an underrated movies blog? Most of you probably don’t, but if you journey all the way back to January 1st, 2010, you’ll find that I blogged about a new movie every damn day for a long time. Eventually, just to save my mind, I started blogging about story in order to give myself some days off from the three-hour grind. Another way I would take a break sometimes would be to invite guests around to share their own picks. I still have all 148 Underrated Movies in their own sidebar, so I won’t archive those, but I never put the Special Guest Picks in the sidebar, so let’s archive those, shall we?

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #16

Join me in welcoming our first Special Guest we’ve had for a while: Jay Stern! I was recently a guest judge for Iron Mule, the long-running short comedy film festival that Jay co-hosts and I was blown away by how funny and well-chosen the films were. If you’re in New York, you must go. Here’s Jay:
Comfort and Joy (1984)
Writer / Director: Bill Forsyth

Scottish director Bill Forsyth is best known in the U.S. for his 1983 feature Local Hero, a quirky, bittersweet portrait of an isolated Scottish community and the Americans who come into contact with them. His follow-up film Comfort and Joy is unfortunately less known here, possibly because it is purely Scottish, meaning there are no American actors in it.

And this is a shame. Forsythe’s movies are great. He’s a gentle filmmaker; his films are touching, simple, and create odd, unadorned portraits of “real” people. They are quiet little films but are always charming, quite often with a healthy dose of bitterness. The deadpan performances only heighten the quality of the humor and pathos.

Comfort and Joy follows Glaswegian DJ Alan ‘Dickie’ Bird as he undergoes the trauma of losing his fabulous girlfriend and becomes caught up in the Glasgow Ice Cream Wars. The Glasgow Ice Cream Wars were a real event in the early ‘80s in which rival drug gangs using cream vans as fronts fought over territory, but the ever-innocent Forsyth took the wars at their face value and presents them here as a rivalry among ice cream salesman. This violent war between purveyors of ice cream provides a wonderfully convoluted foil for Dickie Bird’s life as he tries to find meaning and happiness as a middle-aged man who has lost the love of his life.

There are so many interesting characters in the forefront and periphery of this movie–ice cream gangsters Mr. McCool and Mr. Bunny, the dentist who looks like George C. Scott, the psychiatrist and the station manager who both claim the same story from their navy days–and every throwaway moment is worth paying attention to. This movie also boasts the funniest collection of lame radio jingles you’re liable to ever come across. But be warned–the “jiffy pops” theme will stay in your head for days!

In our post Judd Apatow world, when was the last time you saw a gentle comedy with heart that completely avoids lapsing into sentimentality? We all need more Bill Forsyth in our lives, and Comfort and Joy is as satisfying and unique as an ice cream fritter.

Scoop (2006)
Writer / Director: Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s first British film Match Point left me disappointed and angry. His follow-up movie, however, also starring London and Scarlett Johansson, restored what I love about Woody Allen to the formula.

I won’t argue that Scoop is a great movie. I will, however, argue that it is underrated and certainly the most enjoyable movie of the latest stage of Allen’s career. Some perks to this movie:

  • Johanssen convincingly plays a nerdy and awkward journalist who easily handles Allen’s wordy dialogue
  • The film channels the imaginative quality of many of his early films. The plot is driven by the appearance of a ghost, and there are a few scenes which take place on a boat crossing the river Styx!
  • Allen doesn’t try to play a romantic lead with a much younger woman like he did for most of the ‘90s (a big fear for us confronted with the prospect of an onscreen Allen / Johansson duo) but instead plays a con artist who poses as her father.
  • There are some actual funny jokes in this! And Woody Allen has some fun with placing his shifty American character into high-class British garden parties, providing an element of levity completely missing from the wooden high-class world of Match Point.

Scoop isn’t one of Woody Allen’s greatest, but it’s a fun, pleasing diversion in the realm of Alice, another underappreciated movie of his. But more on that another time.

Sweet Land (2005)
Writer / Director: Ali Selim

“Let us all hope that we are preceded into this world by a love story.” So begins Sweet Land, one of the sweetest movies you’ll ever see, but grounded by a stark, simple Pioneer aesthetic. It’s like Appalachian Spring made into a movie. Or how Terrence Malick would have made Days of Heaven if he cared more about people and storytelling than he does about landscapes.

Set just after WWI among a Norwegian community in rural Minnesota, Sweet Land tells the story of Inga, an orphaned immigrant who has been brought over specifically to marry a local farmer, Olaf. The two haven’t met, and the Minnesota locals are shocked to learn that Inga is not Norwegian but German. The town refuses to accept Inga, and she and Olaf are ostracized when they end up sharing a house together. Forced to harvest their crop alone, the cheery outsider Inga and the grumpy and awkwardly silent Olaf learn to respect and then love each other. And after Olaf performs a reckless and self-destructive act of kindness, they are welcomed back into the community.

Director Ali Selim keeps it simple, letting the images and acting tell the story and never lapses into sentimentality or pity for his characters. Performances are grounded and utterly believable, even when “name” actors such as Alan Cumming and Ned Beatty show up. A double framing device in the present day about Inga and Olaf’s grandson deciding whether or not to sell their house and then recalling the elderly Inga telling him stories about her past, serves as a nice entryway to this place and time that is so underrepresented in movies. There is beautiful period detail of common life in rural America in the early 20th century but the film doesn’t wallow in it or glorify it.

Sweet Land is not only an underrated movie, it just may be one of the best movies from the past 10 years that you’ve never heard of.

In addition to co-hosting Iron Mule, Jay Stern is a writer and director in his own rite, for both stage and screen. He is currently working on his third feature film, the romantic comedy musical adventure The Adventures of Paul and Marian. Go check out the trailer and maybe even sign up to be a co-producer.


Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #15

Today is the first day of Women’s history month and it’s been about a year since we’ve heard from any lady-like special guests on this blog, but that all ends today! We’ve already heard from Kseniya Yarosh’s not-insignificant-other Matt Carman and now she’s here to grace us with her own findings, including some hardcore heroines. Take it away, Kseniya...

I’m a girl with muddled tastes. Typical romantic comedies bore me. Melodramatic tales of female bonding confuse me. I like warped, sloppy, badly made movies like Grease 2, Road House and The Stuff. But that’s not all I like. I am still fascinated by gender, sexuality and romance and much of my film-watching has been devoted to finding relatable, interesting female role models and revealing illustrations of intimate relationships. The following under-the-radar films have felt especially significant when I think of women in the movies:
Hour of the Star (1985)
Directed by: Suzana Amaral
Written by: Suzana Amaral, Alfredo Oroz (based on a novel by Clarice Lispector)

Hour of the Star is like a sadder, more authentic 1980’s Brazilian Napoleon Dynamite. About a girl. Tragic and funny, it’s filled with quotable lines (“I’m a typist, a virgin, and I like Coca-Cola”), cringe-inducing scenes of courtship and odd, ugly-interesting faces. Focused on two outsiders--a country girl who moves to Sao Paolo and her boasting, dopey older boyfriend--the film explores the absurdities of love, life and adulthood.

Some might see the film as mocking an uncultured girl and the small pleasures she takes in eating hot dogs and riding the metro on Sundays. I see it as portraying a normal though slightly naive individual navigating a world that is usually reserved for movie people too clever and/or pretty to identify with. Movie romances tend to be too easy--the melodrama too calculated and quickly undone. But what do you do when you’re ordinary?

Heartburn (1986)
Directed by: Mike Nichols
Written by: Nora Ephron (novel/screenplay)

I didn’t expect to like Heartburn when I rented it. The Nora Ephron films I’d seen previously (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail) were too cutesy and superficial. And, anyway, punny titles are never a good sign. Nonetheless, I was curious to see Meryl Streep in an earlier role, and I was not disappointed. The film is presently one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time.

It has some flaws (like the fact that two journalists who are never seen writing can afford to buy and renovate a house despite being ‘poor’), but overall the story is intelligent and realistic. Unlike with Ephron’s other films, there’s uncertainty about wishing these characters to be together. Not because they don’t love each other, but because some couples just aren’t meant to be.

Possibly my favorite scene comes early on, the day Rachel (Meryl Streep) and Mark (Jack Nicholson) are set to get married. Rachel, doubtful about the wedding, has a number of clumsy, anxious conversations with her friends, family and therapist. Eventually, Mark comes in and calmly asks her if she knows where her shoes are. She doesn’t know what he means. His responds with: “I do. I know where your shoes are and I know everything else about you, and this is only the beginning.” Who knew Nicholson could be so charming? I didn’t.

They get married. Later in the film, Rachel has other episodes of mania and once again they are handled perfectly. They’re not too dramatic; just sad and self-conscious and full of impulse. At the same time, I appreciate that even at her most ‘pathetic,’ Rachel remains likable, not grating or shrill like so many contemporary female characters. Life is difficult, but Heartburn reminds me that you can only cry for so long until you have to laugh again. (Bonus: See Kevin Spacey in his first feature film role as a handsomely scrappy “Subway Thief.”)

Make-Out with Violence (2009)
Directed by: Deagol Brothers
Written by: Deagol Brothers, Cody DeVos, Eric Lehning

I know a film is special when I walk out and instead of reviewing a mental list of faults, I am euphoric and trying to cling on to my favorite scenes. This was the case with Make-Out with Violence. A zombie movie that’s more about growing up, attraction, love and gender, Make-Out blew me away when I saw it a year ago and has stayed with me since.

Its biggest advantage is that it was made by a group of friends who were still close enough to their adolescence to infuse this coming of age story with a kind of anxiety and humor that older screenwriters and directors have trouble conjuring. Don’t expect a typical teen melodrama, however. It’s something more akin to Guy Maddin’s Careful, the jokes being similarly absurd and the acting so stiff and silly that it crosses into a level of sincerity which more realistic performances can only reach for.

I would offer more details, but, honestly, the best way to see this film is with as little information as possible. Afterwards, I’d recommend watching the extras and reading IMDb to discover the messy history of the project. It’s quite a surprise, considering how beautifully calculated the final product appears.

Shopgirl (2005)
Directed by: Anand Tucker
Written by: Steve Martin (novel/screenplay)

I’ve seen Shopgirl about four or five times now, and I still cry at every viewing. Don’t let that scare you though; the film isn’t without its laughs (Steve Martin wrote the source novel, after all). To put it simply, Shopgirl is the thinking girl’s Rom-Com.

Centered around an artsy, introspective twenty-something Saks sales clerk, the story was inaccurately promoted as a love triangle drama between Claire Danes and her two love interests -- the dashing, older Steve Martin and Jason Schwartzman, a goofy, immature graphic designer. As far as I see it, the question of the film isn’t “whom will she choose?” but “should she choose either?” Nonetheless, the key point of the movie is that relationships aren’t inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ They simply are, and their function--beyond intimacy--is to give you clarity and to get you to that next step in your own development. More than love, Shopgirl is about growing up.

Claire Danes’ performance raises the film to the next level. It would have been easy for her to begin the movie as naive and timid, and end it as wise and outgoing. But Danes’ arc is more complex. She’s intelligent from the start and even in her moments of weakness, she’s clearly self-aware and in control. Even her blossoming sexuality during the course of the film is entirely of her own doing and not a result of any guiding partner.

Ultimately, I like the simplicity of the story, its willingness to delve into the uncomfortable conversations of break-ups, and the beautiful Edward Hopper-esque color palate. It’s a movie that any awkward, restless young woman can relate to, and one that can give her some hope.

Kseniya Yarosh is a writer, researcher and blogger living in Brooklyn. She and Matt Carman co-edit the biyearly essay collection “I Love Bad Movies” (featuring several cockeyed Special Guests) which you can get here. Last year she watched 365 movies (good and bad). This year she's trying to get back to reading books. Nonetheless, her main goal for 2011 is to start a podcast for fellow female film enthusiasts.


Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #14

Hey everybody, this week it’s another two-timer (there’s gotta be a better way of saying that): Luke O’Brien. Luke actually withdrew an earlier version of this because he decided that one of his movies wasn’t underrated enough. Nobody could say that about his final list. Some of Luke’s fellow Special Guests run a podcast called The Flophouse and this is the first time we’ve had a movie that got razzed there before it got praised here. Can you spot it? Bravo to Luke for sticking his neck out for some truly unappreciated movies. Take it away, Luke-O…

Last time I talked about movies people may have missed because of a more prominent film released by the same director or at the same time. Today, I want to talk about movies that get in their own way. Sometimes the premise is the problem. Without seeing a movie, there is no way you can imagine that what was described to you could be worth two hours of your life. Even when your friend who loves a good movie tells you what it’s about, you can’t bear to sit down and watch it. Here are a few movies actual people I know have enjoyed despite their initial reaction when they heard the movie’s two second elevator pitch:

1) Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog) (seen above)

Pitch: A Glasgow gangster defends his turf with the aid of Danny, a young man he raised as his attack dog. When an accident leads Danny away from his master and into the care of a blind piano tuner who helps reconnect with his humanity, a reckoning with his “master” is due.

There is nothing right with the premise of this film. It sounds not only like a purposeless action movie, it sounds like a really dumb purposeless action movie. But instead of shying away from the absurdity, Luc Besson embraces it. He populates his Scotland with characters that are so outrageously drawn, they almost become allegorical figures for the best and worst of humanity.

Bob Hoskins’s scenery chewing loan shark, who barks every line with terrorizing comedy, sets the tone for everyone else by giving them a villain to live up to. Jet Li, in the only acting performance of his I find noteworthy, plays Danny with a convincing child-like fear and - when unleashed - bestial anger. When Morgan Freeman shows up as the sage-like piano tuner living with his saintly daughter-in-law, Kerry Condon, you can’t really think twice about if they seem “real.” Every actor completely believes their own character’s strangeness, playing off of one another as if all of this was natural instead of trying to keep us tied to plausibility.

And, of course, part of the joy in this movie comes from the gorgeously engrossing action sequences. Yuen Woo Ping creates ferociously acrobatic fight scenes that Besson films from a dizzying variety of angles and perspectives. All of the action is set to a wildly underrated, pulse-pounding score by Massive Attack. This is the rare movie that passed my most critical test: By the time the opening of the film was done, I hadn’t even touched my popcorn.

2) Io non ho paura (I’m Not Scared)

Pitch: Ten-year-old Michele discovers a boy close to his age, Filippo, chained up in a hole dug into a reclusive part of the fields near his home and grows curious about why the boy is there.

“Chained up boy” ends most of my pleas for people to watch this film. It’s difficult to ever recommend a movie where bad things happen to kids. Even as a single element of a movie, too many people I know are ruined by those moments.

But these rare movies come along where there is no other way that a story can be told. Gabriele Salvatores creates a believable Southern Italy from the 1970s, when the country was rampant with crime. He fills the screen not only with the gorgeous countryside, but also with kids running around, not doing much more than being kids. When Michele discovers Filippo, he reacts like many kids would react – with disbelief and morbid curiosity. (It should also be noted how rare this is, since American child actors - in general - are horrible. They can ruin a scene twice as fast as bad dialog. And our first impulse should rightly be to avoid any movie that uses them extensively.)

If he was an adult we would never accept the blithe way everyone reacts when Michele begins – cautiously – to tell people what he’s discovered, but we can believe a child would be bullied into silence and dismissed. Michele’s inability to understand why this has happened to Filippo, and why no one is helping him, drives the movie forward. As he begins to unravel why Filippo is there and who is keeping him locked up, he begins to understand his family and community for the first time.

3) Mr. Brooks

Pitch: Kevin Costner plays a relapsing serial killer who gets blackmailed by a peeping tom (Dane Cook) into taking him along on his next murder; Demi Moore plays the detective who is hot on their trail.

Sometimes the cast alone is a reason you know you want to stay away, and on paper this cast couldn’t look any worse. The stars of Good Luck Chuck, Passion of the Mind, and The Postman? Not an auspicious start. This movie reeks of the sad opportunism that Hollywood uses to draw ticket sales to a terrible movie by overloading it with big name stars. But this movie is better than that. It’s a great reflection on identity, set in a world of pulpy deliciousness. I’ve seen it several times, and I always have a feeling I can only describe as the opposite of that sucker punch I felt when I walked out of Pacino and Deniro’s spectacularly bad Righteous Kill.

The movie opens with disembodied voices – an aww-shucks Iowan intonation breathily saying the serenity prayer while a growling voice interrupts with objections. We meet the two characters Mr. Brooks is split into: Costner’s Earl, the cautious family man who is using a 12 step program to try to control his darker impulses, and Marshall, giddily played by William Hurt, who acts as the devil on his shoulder, encouraging him to do very bad things.

This gives us a clear path for a modern interpretation of Jekyll and Hyde, but one where Dr. Jekyll is considerably less innocent and Hyde a lot more entertaining. There is no transition into Mr. Brooks’s head – Marshall and Earl have conversations in the middle of a scene with some other character who notices nothing – and the chemistry between Costner and Hurt makes these scenes come alive.

There are too many plot threads (this is still a pulpy thriller full of big improbable jumps) but they all reflect these struggles with our darker selves: Cook’s desperate desire to get in touch with something more Hyde-like piteously taken in by Brooks, Moore’s cop whose contentious divorce and obsession with several killers constantly threatens her Jekyllian nature, and finally Brooks’s daughter, an excellent Danielle Pannabaker, who comes home early from school and becomes the crux of many of Brooks’s fears about how his nature may have affected his family.

4) Apres Vous

Pitch: A French farce that follows a pathologically helpful waiter who interrupts a man who is trying to hang himself, and then goes to outrageous extremes to help the man get his life back on track.

“It’s a French farce about…” is about as far as this pitch gets. Despite the fact that a huge number of our biggest box office comedies are watered down versions of French originals (including the recent Dinner for Schmucks which is a sad toothless version of Le Diner de Cons), there’s still a pretty strong bias against comedies you have to read, especially by people whose exposure to French comedy is the old saw that all of France thinks Jerry Lewis is still funny. Even my film-loving friends, who would rave about Tati, grumble about how too many of their movies are like Les Bronzes, or one of the other garishly over-the-top comedies. But this movie is more than where it is from. So I need to be clear here: I’m telling you about this movie so you can see it and enjoy it before it’s remade with Paul Rudd and Jason Segel.

This story stands out to me for how it combines the elements of farce, so popular in their better comedies, with a more benevolent view of humanity. After saving his new friend from hanging, our waiter feels responsible for him. He discovers that the inconsolable man recently broke up with his girlfriend and has no interest in going on without his love. Undaunted by the man’s protestations (and further attempts to take his own life), the waiter tries to help the man repair his life and reconcile with his ex.

All of this, of course, has to be done before the suicidal mope costs him his job and his girlfriend. Every good turn is met with resistance and ridiculous failure. That’s normal for a farce. The challenge is getting us to still care about the guys we know are struggling to succeed. Daniel Auteuil loves the characters, and has specialized in creating people you would actively root against (his cheating executive in Le Doublure) or pity (his boorish accountant in Le Placard). But it’s unusual for a story to be built on someone whose most significant personality flaw is excessive kindness. And when the waiter begins to consider betraying his new friend when he sees how beautiful his ex is, we get an earned sense of conflict that makes the story more compelling than the ridiculous set-up normally would.

5) Lars and the Real Girl

Pitch: A painfully shy man’s “relationship” with a sex doll that he treats as a real person helps him stop isolating himself from the rest of the world.

This sounds like a soft core porn treatment of those classic 80s movies where inanimate objects come to life. (Zalman King’s Mannequin, maybe?) I don’t want to see that movie either. The actual movie is the opposite of what it sounds like. It’s devoid of sex, grounded, and even goes out of its way to show Lars’s discomfort with even being touched.

I found the movie light on the comedy that the goofy cover communicates. The movie is successful in part because Ryan Gosling does such a phenomenal job bringing Lars to life as someone with genuinely crippling shyness. But a real Lars is a sad portrait of someone with genuinely crippling shyness. It’s the portrait of someone who, as he begins to be openly emotional with those around him, is totally unprepared for how difficult feeling that much can be.

And while the emotionally stunted hermit is centerpiece, the movie, in the end, is hardly about him or his imagined paraplegic missionary girlfriend Bianca – although they are the catalysts for everything the follows. The film unfolds around how his brother and pregnant sister-in-law react to this news, how that affects how others treat Lars. And the story grows to encompass the entire community around them – participating in, or resisting, Lars’s increasingly elaborate delusion. The film is, as many great stories are, about how we treat people. And not much is more important than that.

Luke O'Brien works for a privately held movie database. His day job just supports his avocation: answering people's questions about what to put next in their Netflix queue. If you need help pairing a bad movie with a good bourbon, he's happy to help.


Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #13

Hey guys, it’s time for another Special Guest! Jonathan Auxier and I met when we both were being feted for writing screenplays about scientists. We discovered we had a lot in common, and enjoyed bickering about those things we didn’t. Weve commiserated on the screwy paths our careers have taken ever since. Let’s see what he has for us...

Little Otik (2000)
Director: Jan Svankmajer
Writer: Jan Svankmajer
Stars: some people you’ve never heard of (and a puppet)

Jan Svankmajer is considered by many to be the greatest stop-motion animator in history (any chump can make an army of skeletons, but it takes a true genius to animate chunks of raw meat!). He is best known for his 1988 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, but for my money, Little Otik is the better movie.

Little Otik is based on an obscure Czech fairy tale, but the tropes are familiar enough. It tells the story of a barren husband and wife who desperately long for a child. After digging up an old tree in the yard, the husband decides to dress the stump up as a wooden doll. He intends it to be a sort of joke, but the wife quickly latches onto the doll, treating it like a real boy. And then the impossible happens: their “Little Otik” comes to life! For a brief moment, we think we are watching one of those happy fairy tales where good things happen to deserving people. But our feelings quickly change when Little Otik gets hungry. First he eats all the food. Then he eats the cat. Then he eats the neighbors. Little Otik is like the gingerbread man -- except instead of running away from people he eats them.

This movie perfectly captures the tyranny of a mindless, screaming baby -- selfish in his appetites, unstoppable in his rage. It is this aspect that elevates Little Otik above simple genre horror. Each scene speaks directly to our own subconscious anxieties and fears about children, parents, and The Miracle of Life.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writers: Charles McKeown & Terry Gilliam
Stars: John Neville, Sarah Polly, Jonathan Pryce, Oliver Reed, Robin Williams Uma Thurman

If Georges Melies were alive today, I think he would have been very jealous of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. This movie is best known for being one of the biggest box-office bombs in history, but it is also an undeniable masterpiece of imaginative storytelling.

The movie chronicles the life of Baron Munchausen, fabled to be the greatest liar of all time. When the movie begins, the Baron is now an old man, hobbled and hushed by an Enlightenment society that cares less about stories than they do about the Turkish army storming their gates. The villain in this movie is a low-level bureaucrat who executes local war heroes for “demoralizing” the ordinary soldiers. Munchausen is next on his list. As Munchausen flees (in a hot-air balloon made from women’s undergarments!), the lines between reality and fantasy blur. He goes off to find his old cohorts, including a man who can run at incredible speeds, and a man who can lift impossible weights. Together, Munchausen and his companions single-handedly engage in battle against the Turks to save their besieged city.

To my thinking, most of Gilliam’s movies could often use a stronger narrative. They burst with vibrant, imaginative imagery, but that imagery seems to come at the cost of character and plot. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is the shining exception to that rule. Every scene works beautifully to progress Gilliam’s thesis -- proving that a movie with an Idea need never be boring.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984)
Director: WD Richter
Writer: Earl Mac Rauch
Stars: Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd

A few months ago a friend of mine invented a cocktail named the “Perfect Tommy.” He was, of course, making a reference to the 80s cult movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. This movie was designed for homage. It contains enough bizarre characters, terms, and events to rename every drink in the book. I am not going to try describing the plot because it will only make you head hurt. Instead I’m going to transcribe the Star Wars-style crawl that opens the movie:

Buckaroo Banzai, born to an American mother and a Japanese father, thus began life as he was destined to live it ... going in several directions at once. A brilliant neurosurgeon, this restless young man grew quickly dissatisfied with a life devoted solely to medicine. He roamed the planet studying martial arts and particle physics, collecting around him a most eccentric group of friends, those hard-rocking scientists The Hong Kong Cavaliers. …And now, with his astounding jet car ready for a bold assault on the dimension barrier, Bucakaroo Banzai faces the greatest challenge of his turbulent life ... ... while high above Earth, an alien spacecraft keeps a nervous watch on Team Banzai’s every move ...

Please note that I did not make up the part about the aliens. So before the movie has even started, we’ve got neuroscience, martial arts, rock-and-roll, jet cars, dimensional rifts, and aliens. Add to the list: skinny ties, secret twins, cold war missile strikes, Orson Wells, and the greatest “meet cute” in movie history. The whole thing wraps up in a sort of music video credits sequence that makes “Jai Ho” look like the electric slide.

There is no question that Buckaroo Banzai is not everyone’s cup of tea. (I forced my wife to watch it with me recently. She hated it. Hated. It.) I think its contemporary counterpart might be Scott Pilgrim vs. The World -- both are playful, ambitious movies, deeply rooted in the pop sensibilities of their ages. Both failed to make money. Both are beloved by dorks like me.

The Three Burials of Melquiadas Estrada (2005)
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Writer: Guillermo Arriga
Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper, January Jones, Dwight Yoakam, Julio Credillo

Let me just get this out of the way: The Three Burials of Melquiadas Estrada is one of the best-written movies I have ever seen. The script, which is based on the real-life murder of Esequiel Hernandez, is a punishing moral puzzle that completely upends conventional understandings of innocence and guilt. Three Burials... wasn’t underrated, but it was definitely under the radar of the general movie-going public. I suspect this is because the country was too busy freaking out over another revisionist cowboy movie that year.

The story follows the accidental murder of an illegal immigrant (Estrada) by a hard-nosed border patrol agent. It’s the sort of issue that might normally get swept under the rug by local Texas authorities, but for the intervention of a simple cattle rancher named Pete Perkins. Perkins, you see, was Estrada’s closest friend. And when he learns of what’s happened, he resolves to take justice into his own hands. This could be the setup for a simple revenge-flick, but Three Burials... is so, so, so much smarter than that. The movie is told out of chronological order, and with every new scene we gain a new understanding of characters’ guilt and innocence. The actual events are never in question, but what those events mean is constantly shifting. It’s a moral whodunit.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Tommy Lee Jones play a character without a badge. His Pete Perkins is a sort of grotesque foil for the humorless lawmen he is so known for. It reminds me of how after decades of playing two-dimensional gunslingers, Clint Eastwood directed himself in Unforgiven -- a movie that mercilessly deconstructs the gunslinger. Jones performs a similar trick with Three Burials..., creating a movie that feels both current and timeless. (A special mention should also be made of January Jones, whose performance as a washed-up Ohio prom queen is almost indistinguishable from her dazzling Betty Draper ... it’s amazing what a change of costume can do.)

Jonathan Auxier is a screenwriter, novelist, and former yo-yo champion. His first book, Peter Nimble & his Fantastic Eyes will be coming out from Abrams this fall. You can find out more by visiting his delightful new-ish blog at www.TheScop.com.


Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #12

If you guys remember Roberto Lovenheim from last time, then you know that he goes the extra mile to track down obscure international gems that may have never been seen in the states outside of film festivals, so here’s another international sampling of sex and death:

En la Cama
(Chile 2005, 85 min. dir: Matias Bize, cast: Blanca Lewin, Gonzalo Valenzuela)

Two strangers meet at a party and spend the night in a cheap motel room, but what happens is anything but cheap. This amazing film never goes flaccid while exploring the deepening relationship between Daniela (Blanca Lewin) and Bruno (Gonzalo Valenzuela). Movies like this are not new. Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow did it in John and Mary (1969). What is new is Julio Rojas always surprising screenplay that keeps changes topics in an every deepening quest. Two people go from causal sex to true need and understanding. They carry secrets in their wallets that each, in turn, sneaks a look at, but never admits to the other. It is what must be confessed between hotter and hotter sex and frantic pillow fights.

Blanca Lewin comes from a long history of soap operas and television series. Gonzalo Valenzuela comes from telenovelas; the TV serials that are a staple of Latin countries. In a country like Chile, without much movie production, TV is the way to work as an actor. It carries none of the stigma attached to TV roles in the United Sates. If either of these actors were part of a bigger culture, they would be international stars. Blanca would vie for the Paz Vega roles, and Gonzalo might be a rival of Gael Bernal Garcia. (Gonzalo’s sister Luz Francisca Valenzuela was Miss Chile in the Miss Universe contest in 1996 but she lost to Miss Venezuela).

If you want to see what a director, writer, and two good actors can do with one set, hot sex, nudity, and penetrating character portraits: this is for you. It also makes you wonder why the porn industry never thought of hiring good directors, writers, and actors to elevate their product. If they had, they would have survived the onslaught of online amateurs that killed their biz. It’s all about haste versus taste: or porn versus art.

Partes Usadas
(Mexico 2007, 95 min. dir: Aaron Fernandez, cast: Emery Eduardo Granados, Carlos Ceja, Alan Chavez).

This is not a glamorous profession like bank robbing. All it takes to steal cars is a screwdriver and guts. The initiation of Ivan starts in a junk yard. His uncle Jaimie orders him to strip naked, then locks his shirt, pants, and underwear in different wrecked cars. He hands him a window shiv and tells him if he can jimmy the car doors open, he can get his clothes.

Every big city has a section for stolen cars. In LA it’s Bramfield Street in Pacoima. In New York it’s Willet’s Point in Flushing. In Mexico City it’s everywhere. Vast tracts of land set to one purpose: a thieves market for auto parts. Partes Usadas is about the low lifes who steal by night to fill parts orders by day. You don’t find moments like this in Grand Theft Auto. The fascination of Partes Usadas (Used Parts) is that it looks as low life as the characters it portrays. No lovely lighting or polished dolly moves here. Even the quality of the film looks like it was outdated stock that was stolen.

At first I wanted to click “eject” because the movie has the smell of amateurism. But I got slowly hooked as I realized the lack of style was the style. Emery Eduardo Granados could be another Gael Garcia Bernal if he gets some breaks. Meanwhile Partes Usadas is a primer about what happens when your BMW disappears. Chances are if the police don’t find it in two hours there won’t be enough left to honk the horn.

Nina’s Tragedies
(Israel 2003, 110 min, dir: Savi Gavison, cast: Ayelet Zurer, Alon Elkabeth, Shmil Ben Ari).

Young Nadav lusts after his sexy Aunt Nina by peeping in her window and writing lustful stories in his diary about her. When Nina’s husband dies in a bomb incident while in the Army reserves, Nadav’s mother sends him temporarily to live with Aunt Nina so she won’t be alone. From the spare room he gets to observe all the twists and tragedies of her love life. Soon Annon installs himself as her perfect lover. Actually he was part of the Army detail who came to inform her of her husband’s death (in a great bit of humor, they soldiers on the detail get the wrong apartment and inform the wrong widow. She faints, but manages to scream out “You want Entrance B” as she recovers).

Annon is everything Nina wants. He is sensitive to the point of crying, he is poetic, and he is dedicated. He also has a girl friend. What make Nina’s Tragedies so watchable are the little twists between tragedy and humor. Like the naked man Nina sees in the street who resembles her husband. He turns out to be the boyfriend of a Russian woman who is a buddy of Nadav’s peeping Tom accomplice. So it goes.

The film would not have worked if not for Shmil Ben Ari (Annon), who seduces not by sweeping Nina off her feet, but by crying over her tragedies. What an original twist on a guy trying to prove he is sensitive. Meanwhile Nadav is coming of age in this cozy world of lust and irony. Some movies work so much better on the small screen, and I think this is one of them. In a theater Annon’s crying would be unsettling. We would think, “Get over it.” On an intimate screen his over-the-top emotions are just perfect.

Box 507
(Spain 2002, 112 min. dir: Enrique Urbizu, cast: Antonio Resines, Jose Coronado, Goya Toledo, Felix Alvarez, Dafne Fernandez)

Can you believe a bank manager as the hero of an action crime film? Remember this was 2002 and bankers hadn’t yet become villains. His daughter has been burned to death in a suspicious forest fire in primo tourist area of the Spanish coast. An unrelated bank robbery at his branch turns up a mysterious map of the same forest area when one of the safe deposit boxes is rifled. The only problem with this otherwise gripping, original, and character filled thriller is the confusion between two safe deposit boxes that both seem to contain clues.

If you can get buy this plot confusion that took me two fast-backwards of the DVD to understand ( that is, to understand that I would never understand); the rest of the film is gripping. The banker wants to find the truth about the death of his daughter. An ex-cop on the take wants to blackmail those who can deliver enough money to send him and his alcoholic wife out of the country for a better life. The two plots and the two guys are going to meet somewhere and nobody is going to be happy with the outcome.

The film is fascinating: full of great characters played by great character actors. They always pulling you forward to the next scene. Americans don’t get to see many European action films. They don’t come to art theaters where the crowds wants picture postcard views of Europe, and they never come to multiplexes where the audience can’t even read the subtitles. It is also a deliciously violent film, assuming you like guys getting shot in the back of the head. I do.

Robert Lovenheim is a longtime movie producer turned internet entrepreneur. There's a lot more at Robert's ambitious website, Movie With Me, which has has a ton of cool content in addition to his blog.

Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #11

I had originally planned on alternating new special guest with old for this second round, but since certain people who know who they are haven’t turned theirs in yet, let’s have another return visit, shall we? A warm welcome back to our very first special guest, Geoff Betts. Whattya got for us this time, Geoff?

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

One of the best cinematic depictions of postwar, working class Londoners ever made, this film serves as a startling precursor to the great British “Kitchen Sink/Angry Young Man” films that began appearing in the late 1950s and early ‘60s (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life, etc).

The story opens with a convict named Tommy Swann (John McCallum) escaping from prison while in the process of being transferred to a different penitentiary. Having nowhere to turn he finds refuge in the care of an ex-girlfriend, Rose (well played by Googie Withers – that’s a British name for ya), who lives in East London but is now married with children. Still harboring feelings for Tommy, Rose decides to take him in despite the consequences she could potentially face. Her romanticized view of Tommy though is shattered as it becomes clear over the course of the day that his memory of their time together is not nearly as profound as hers.

While the primary narrative is a suspenseful tale of the London police searching for Tommy all over town and Rose making quick decisions on how best to hide him, the film is also about the daily plight of East Londoners. Portrayed by an excellent ensemble supporting cast, these minor characters are shown throughout the film coping with the effects of World War II, both in terms of heavy troop and civilian casualties as well as adapting to a slow economic recovery that appears to have no end in sight. Steadily directed by Robert Hamer, this film is available for sale on DVD as well as for rent as a digital download on Amazon. It is unfortunately not available on Netflix.

On the Bowery (1956)

Produced and directed by Lionel Rogosin, the film depicts three days in New York City’s formerly poor Bowery neighborhood (the stretch of 3rd Ave between Houston & Canal, which serves today as the east end of uber-rich Soho) and the plight of its chronically homeless, drug & alcohol addicted residents – the Bowery Bums. Featuring real people that he met while spending time in the Bowery, Rogosin takes apects of their actual lives to create a project that is part documentary and part scripted indie drama. The result is just a remarkable film that captures the lives of people from various backgrounds who have all hit rock bottom and have little hope of ever improving their circumstances.

The film begins as the main character Ray arrives in the Bowery and goes straight to a dive bar after having worked several weeks laying railroad tracks in New Jersey. Ray makes friends amongst the other bums but his fortunes sour pretty quickly as he embarks on a bender that lasts several days and leaves him penniless and alone.

I had never heard of On the Bowery until I saw that Film Forum here in New York would be showing it this year. It emerged from the small, New York independent art film scene that started to take shape in the early 1950s (The Quiet One, The Little Fugitive, Weddings and Babies, etc.), before popularly breaking through with John Cassavetes’ Shadows in 1959. Despite its current obscurity, the film was a minor commercial success at the time and it helped generate much public discussion around the plight of America’s invisible poor as well as the dire social consequences of alcoholism. Ray was even recruited to come to Hollywood to act in other films but left town pretty quickly after his arrival and was never heard from again. Unfortunately On the Bowery is not available on DVD or instant download as far as I can tell. If you see it playing on television though, I would highly recommend you check it out.

Sounder (1972)

Based on the excellent Newbery Medal winning children’s book of the same name, Sounder is a remarkable and genuinely touching film. Directed by the former blacklisted writer/director, Martin Ritt, the film tells an American story that is rarely discussed in much depth - the ongoing slavery that most black men and women had to endure in the South for decades after the Civil War through either tenant farming (e.g., renting farm land, seed, and supplies from wealthy, white land owners at a cost that was deliberately designed keep the farmers permanently in debt) or domestic servitude.

Much of the discussion around racial discrimination in the south focuses on African Americans not being able to exercise their right to vote, receiving unequal protection under the law, and as victims of state sponsored segregation. And while those are all very serious injustices, the absence of anything resembling economic freedom was (and frankly remains) a much greater daily hardship to bear. Sounder does an excellent job at recreating this socio-economic environment by depicting a family of Louisiana sharecroppers in the 1930s just trying to get by.

Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson both received Academy Award nominations for their roles as the hard working tenant farmers who, on account of both a weak crop and a sparse hunting season, do not have enough to provide for their children. Out of desperation, Winfield ends up stealing a small amount of food from a nearby general store. He is of course found out and arrested for this transgression. Unsure of Winfield’s whereabouts, the family’s eldest son, David (Kevin Hooks), embarks on a long journey by foot to a labor camp in an attempt to locate his father. While on this journey David comes across a caring school teacher who takes him in. And during his brief stay with her David realizes there are more opportunities in life – they just happen to be outside of rural Louisiana.

Sounder, while somewhat remembered (mainly because of the book more than anything else), is typically not included on lists of great films of the 1970s or even films dealing with the subject of racial injustice. I hope that will eventually change over time. Sounder is on DVD. You can get it through Netflix.

Fat City (1972)

Gritty and dressed down, Fat City is a terrific movie about the profession of boxing and the devastating physical and mental toll it takes on its fighters. Directed by the legendary John Huston, the film centers around a drunk, washed-up prizefighter named Billy Tully (brilliantly played by Stacy Keach) who tries to get back in the game after he meets a young, up-and-coming boxer (Jeff Bridges). Tully reconnects with his old manager, who sets up a mid-level fight where he will be featured as the main event.

One the best aspects of the film is how it creates a compelling story out of a rather small stakes situation. The audience is never led to believe that Tully is going to somehow become the “champ” at the end. Moreover, as is the case in many boxing films, Tully also does not find himself having to choose between two unrealistic love interests: the super sexy but ultimately shallow blond knockout - or the sweet, more substantive brunette knockout. Instead, he hooks up with a rundown woman (Susan Tyrell) who he meets in his local bar while her boyfriend is in jail. Not exactly a fairy tale romance but a very believable and compelling one.

Kris Kristofferson’s soulful song, “Help Me Make It Through the Night” opens and closes the movie. It significantly adds to the mood of a film that’s less about boxing and more about what typically happens to these would be “contendas” after they’ve been used up and tossed aside. Fat City is on DVD and you can get it through Netflix.

When we were 13 years old, Geoff Betts and I decided that we should devote some time to watching all the important movies. Were still not done with that damn project, but he did get a few film studies degrees out of it. Now he’s a contract organizer for the writer’s guild and he’s also been known to write and produce himself.


Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #10

Long-time fans might remember our friend Dan McCoy from his piece way back in March. Now he comes along and swipes two movies I’d been meaning to do myself: (Can you guess which two? I’ll bet you can…)

California Split (1974)

Robert Altman is one of my favorite American directors, and this is in the upper tier of his work, but it’s under-seen and (as a result) under-loved, probably because it wasn’t available on DVD until 2004—and even that DVD is now out of print.

There’s not much in the way of traditional plot here – Elliott Gould plays a compulsive gambler who falls into an enabling/co-dependent friendship with George Segal, who is well on his way to a gambling problem of his own, and the film simply follows them on their relentless quest for more action. The screenplay (which writer Joseph Walsh originally developed with Steven Spielberg) somehow manages to be about the depressing subject of compulsive behavior, without being depressing itself. This is a comedy – albeit a cagey, bittersweet one – that drifts along on Altman’s overlapping dialogue (Wikipedia notes this was the first non-Cinerama movie to use 8-track stereo) and Elliott Gould’s charm (I think that cineastes sometimes overstate the quality of 1970s American film, but I love any time period that would allow Gould to be a movie star).

Lastly—and I’ll try not to offer spoilers—the movie finds a way to avoid the “compulsive gambler story” cliché of ending with the characters losing everything. The film plays the much more interesting, and realistic, trick of turning a traditionally “happy” ending into a sad one. Rumor has it that the film is out of print to clear the way for a new DVD release that will restore scenes that had to be altered or cut in the first version, due to music rights issues. Let’s hope it’s back in circulation soon.

Road Games (1981)

I rented this movie after seeing Not Quite Hollywood, the documentary about “Ozsploitation” films—exploitation movies that poured out of Australia in the 1970s and 80s. This is a much more restrained film than some of the gonzo visions catalogued in that doc, but it carries some of the disreputable charge that the best thrillers tend to pack.

Speaking of thrillers: why were they so great in the late 70s and early 80s, and are so terrible now? I can’t answer that question, but it may be because those films still followed the lessons of Hitchcock’s “ordinary man” thrillers (with an added dose of sex and violence courtesy of the MPAA ratings system), whereas modern thrillers prefer nonsensical twist endings.

Richard Franklin, the director of Road Games, certainly took his cues from Hitchcock (in fact, after this film he directed Psycho II, which—I’ll give it this—is just about as good as an unnecessary sequel to a masterpiece could hope to be). Road Games is essentially Rear Window made as a trucker film. Instead of a laid-up photographer watching neighbors through their apartment windows, our hero is a long-haul truck driver who spends his days talking to himself, or his pet dingo (like I said: Australian). As he drives, he spies on his fellow travelers, in their cars, and becomes convinced that one of them is the serial murderer who’s been terrorizing women along his route. Things get more complex when an attractive young hitchhiker he picked up goes missing, and the police become convinced he’s the one behind the killings.

With a charming (and young!) Stacy Keach as our hero, a fresh-faced Jamie Lee Curtis as the hitchhiker, stylish cinematography, a great sick joke ending, and the best Bolero-knock-off score in the world, Road Games is the Rear-Window-meets-Duel ozsploitstravaganza you didn’t know you needed.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

The Coen Brothers have such a devoted cult that it seems silly to proclaim any of their films underrated (unless you’re a contrarian championing Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers, in which case: you’re wrong). However, The Man Who Wasn’t There had the bad luck to come after O Brother, Where Art Thou? which was a bona fide phenomenon (albeit as much for its soundtrack as anything). It seems to have slipped through the cracks, even with Coen aficionados.

The outlines of the story are pure James M. Cain—Ed Crane, a barber, blackmails his wife’s lover to get funds to start his own business. (That the funds are to enter the newfangled field of “dry” cleaning just points up how small his dreams are.) When confronted, he ends up killing his rival, and gets away with it… except his wife is accused of the crime. However, while the outlines might be noir, the side touches—references to existential philosophy, war paranoia, and sci-fi/UFO imagery—create a larger tapestry of 1950’s cultural influences that build on one another, to distinct but ineffable effect. While it may be an ironic joke when Ed’s lawyer refers to him as the “modern man,” it’s also no more than the truth.

The film is beautifully acted—Billy Bob Thorton is amazing in his ability to be funnier the less he does. Listen to his hilariously uninflected reading of “I’m gonna take his hair and throw it out in the dirt. I wanna mingle it with common house dirt.” Frances McDormand’s unlovable traits somehow manage to make her all the more lovable. And Tony Shalhoub as the lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider makes you curse the film performances we’ve lost due to eighty seasons of “Monk”.

The Coens get a bad rap for being diagrammatic in their scripts and cold and unfeeling toward their characters. I don’t find either criticisms to be valid. The inclusion of the UFO theme in The Man Who Wasn’t There is the sort of touch that comes from screenwriters going with their gut, rather than what makes “sense,” and the film’s transcendent ending is almost as moving as Hi’s final monologue in Raising Arizona —albeit in a much sadder way.

Doomsday (2008)

Here’s where I lose my credibility… but who gives a damn about credibility anyway? Credibility is what happens when you stick to recommending stuff everyone agrees is “good.” If you’re an interesting person, you’re going to have some idiosyncratic tastes, and you should be willing to defend them. Doomsday got a bad rap for two reasons (1.) it was director Neil Marshall’s follow-up to The Descent, which was a remarkably disciplined horror film that built to the best monster freak-out this side of Aliens—an instant classic with genre fans, and (2.) critics and audiences complained that it was derivative of other films—most notably early John Carpenter and the Mad Max films.

To that I say (1.) I loved The Descent too, but this is a whole ‘nother thing. That was a claustrophobic slow-burn thriller and this is an everything-and-the-kitchen sink action extravaganza. (2.) The director has expressly stated this is an homage to those films. To criticize it for being derivative is missing the point. Yes, there’s been a deluge of recent movies referencing yesterday’s cheap thrills, and—at worst—those films can be curdled in irony. But Doomsday takes great joy in its derivativeness, borrowing but not winking, and always moving like a cannonball.

The plot is typical post-apocalyptic claptrap: a deadly virus has decimated Scotland, and the British government has walled off the entire country. When the virus resurfaces in London, decades later, Major Eden Sinclair is tasked with venturing into the land north of the wall where she must dodge lawless survivors and locate the one doctor who may have a cure for the disease.

The fun is in the way the film shifts from being a gloss on Escape From New York into a medieval bloodbath a la Excalibur, all before ending with a thrilling chase straight out of The Road Warrior. Some might call this “uneven” or “crazy” or even “crazy bananas.” Me, I like the way the film leaps from genre from genre, never getting dull—like any film that has a group of plague-survivor punks doing a choreographed dance number to The Fine Young Cannibals’ “Good Thing” ever risks being dull. Plus it has Rhona Mitra (best known for replacing Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld series and for being nude in Hollow Man) actually turning in a very credible (and sexy) action hero performance while strutting around in leather pants. Sometimes it’s the simple pleasures, y’know?

Dan McCoy has been going strong since his last appearance... His animated web series 9am Meeting got him a gig animating promos for Cinemax in his inimitable style, and it also won big at the New York Television Festival. Meanwhile, his funny podcast about the worst recent cinema, The Flophouse, is still going strong and he had a popular piece about zombies in Slate. The man is on fire.


Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #9

Hello? Anybody still in town? At least I know that the Canadians have no excuses—your Thanksgiving was weeks ago! If you can hear me, here’s a Special Guest Column from Matt Carman. I recently had a piece in the ‘zine run by Matt and his significant other Kseniya, so they’re returning the favor with their underrated picks. This week it’s Matt’s turn:

Streets of Fire (1984)
Directed by: Walter Hill
Written by: Larry Gross and Walter Hill

Streets of Fire is what would happen if the Max Fischer Players adapted director Walter Hill’s The Warriors into a musical. The sets are repetitive and simple (apparently every block in Hill’s dream city sits under an elevated train track with a diner on the corner), shootouts come with cartoonishly large explosions, and pretty much everyone is white.

But it’s also the closest we’ve got to a Han Solo rock opera, if you’d be into that sort of thing. Gunny drifter Michael Paré reluctantly signs up to save smooth-cheeked rock star Diane Lane from shirtless-in-rubber-fireman’s-pants Willem Dafoe. Along the way Paré will rescue a lost doo-wop group, get into a crunchy sledgehammer duel, and shoot first in every cantina in town. This is an unbridled story about young passion, young adventure, and young Dafoe, whose facial crags have apparently not changed since 1984.

If the songs behind Lane’s lip-synched performances sound like those of a Lady Meatloaf, it’s because they are; Jim Steinman, writer of most Loaf hits, penned and arranged many of the tunes for the film. These songs are incredibly, infectiously good, and the concert scenes showcasing them are big, over-the-top productions. For evidence, check out the clips of “Nowhere Fast” and “Tonight is What it Means to be Young.” Then try to keep from playing them again.

TiMER (2009)
Written and Directed by: Jac Schaeffer

As author Kevin Wilson once said of his short stories, many of which bend reality in tiny ways, “When you present something strange and perhaps not possible, if you don’t blink, if you simply incorporate it into the story without making too much of a show about it, it will have a better chance of being accepted by the reader.”

TiMER writer-director Jac Schaeffer seems to agree with this principle. At the heart of the story is an implant device, a magical technology which counts down to the moment at which you will (and it is a definite, infallible will) meet your soul mate. The setup seems ripe for explanations and arguments, but Schaeffer smartly avoids any potential sci-fi navel-gazing to focus on the effects this technology has on Oona and her small, perfect-match-minded circle. It’s not about how, but what then.

The film’s neutral color palette and soft, even lighting can sometimes feel like a toothpaste ad. But underneath the gauzy visuals are smart performances and naturally witty dialogue, and a relieving refusal to slide in to the usual boy-meets-girl tropes. Without driving it in too much, the characters’ unease with the device reflects our increasingly complicated struggle to decide how much knowledge is too much. When Oona’s teenage brother’s alarm sounds, his disappointment is clear; he won’t get to meet girls, make mistakes, and eventually find the right one (or not). His road to “happiness” is standing five feet away, and the device is pushing him to take the sure thing over the exciting unknown. TiMER eliminates the need to question compatibility, and in doing so, shows how much faith it can take for two people to commit to each other in the real world.

Two Documentaries “About” The Past:
Billy the Kid (2007) Directed by: Jennifer Venditti
Stevie (2002) Directed by: Steve James

It’s easy for a documentary to manufacture nostalgia – who doesn’t love feeling warm and fuzzy about the past? – but it’s rare to see an honest depiction of all the halting uneasiness between the memories. Billy is a 15-year-old karate student and heavy metal fan stumbling through a year of high school in rural Maine. He’s a cracked genius with an accidental knack for brilliant one-liners (“Years of loneliness have been murder,” he says to a group of men clapping outside a diner after they witness his first kiss). Adults and younger kids are generally impressed and a little confused by his unfiltered honesty and forwardness, while his peers unfailingly refuse to understand him.

Director Jennifer Venditti first met Billy while casting teenage extras for a short film. Unable to forget him, she later came back to chronicle his ups and downs and frank philosophies. It’s easy to see why he stuck in her head. Billy somehow manages to make every moment feel simultaneously uncomfortable and charming. Even his most mundane exchanges seem to say something about the ways we all relate to each other. Drama may be life with the dull bits cut out, but in Billy the Kid the “dull” bits are the most dramatic.

In Stevie, director Steve James decides to revisit his past following the release of his hugely successful Hoop Dreams. He returns to rural Illinois to check in on the titular Stevie, to whom James had been a Big Brother in his college years. But the warm reunion fades as we learn about adult Stevie’s emotional, mental, and criminal problems, and witness his tense moments with everyone who tries to reach out to him.

James remains involved even as Stevie’s troubles become darker and more disturbing, and the tone of Stevie changes along with them. James struggles, often on screen, to justify his desire to help someone whom he once loved but no longer likes. At times, Stevie comes off as a real-life (though much less sexually charged) version of Oz’s Chris Keller – in spite of his awfulness, we want him to win, and then we feel guilty for wanting that. Though it begins as an experiment in rekindling relationships and revisiting the good times, Stevie ends up making a case for leaving the past alone.

Step Up 3D (2010)
Directed by: Jon Chu
Written by: Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer

Even (or especially) if you aren’t into dance, the choreography in Step Up 3D is often mind-blowing. This film also makes the strongest case I’ve seen for the recent wave of 3D films – while the technique is clumsily shoehorned into most movies, here it’s essential. 3D requires that we clearly see objects on various planes, so director Jon Chu eschews the usual close-up/quit-cut style for wide angles and long takes, allowing us to actually see the dancers’ every impossible movement.

The centerpiece of the movie is a single-take routine in which the awkward Moose (Adam G. Sevani) and his lady friend goofily interact with everything and everyone on a New York City street, set to a remix of Fred Astaire’s “I Won’t Dance.” It’s one of many grin-inducing sequences in this celebration of collaboration, and the moment at which Step Up 3D transcends its sappy genre to become a surprising love letter to performance.

Matt Carman is a writer/photo-blogger/etc. living in Brooklyn. He and Kseniya Yarosh co-edit the biyearly essay collection “I Love Bad Movies” which you can get here. His secret is that he scours the VHS-for-sale shelves of every video and thrift store he can find looking for buried treasure, which usually mean anything with Ryan O'Neal or James Remar (who luckily is in almost everything).


Underrated Movies: Special Guest Picks #8

It’s appropriate enough that our guest here during TV week is emmy-winning writer Elliott Kalan, who has come back to be our first-ever three-timer. (See his earlier picks here and here.) Of course it’s also “The Original Was Better” week, which doesn’t exactly apply to Elliott’s show, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”. Let’s see what he’s cooked up for us this time in a super-sized post:


Directed by: Ray Enright & Busby Berkley
Written by: Delmer Daves & Robert Lord

Let’s get one thing straight. I’m a big Busby Berkley musical number fan, as I’m sure you all are, too. But even I have to admit that much of the time the actual films around those musical numbers aren’t all that great. That’s what makes me so frustrated that Dames isn’t better known, because it’s one of the few Berkley musicals that would still be plenty of fun without the musical numbers. For one thing, it’s a cavalcade of the Hollywood contract players we all know and love. Sure, you’ve got Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, and Joan Blondell in there (and incidentally my favorite Blondell performance of all time), but the real story and screentime belongs to Hugh Herbert as the puritanical, prohibitionist millionaire Ezra Ounce (who’s nonetheless addicted to alcoholic nerve tonic) and Guy Kibbee and the immortal Zasu Pitts as the relatives desperate not to get caught doing anything filthy lest he cut them out of his will. The quick zoom-in on Kibbee’s frightened, blinking face as he discovers YET AGAIN that Joan Blondell has found some way into a compromising position in his bed is worth the cost of admission.

This movie is wall-to-wall goofy in the best possible sense, thanks in large part to a sharp-silly script by future tough guy director Delmer Daves. It provides just the right setting to the jewel of some of Berkley’s best work, like the title number, a tribute to beautiful women arranged in geometrical shapes; “I Only Have Eyes For You” (the specific number parodied by Joe Dante in Gremlins 2), and most gorgeously of all in “The Girl At The Ironing Board”, a period musical number of batshit insane genius involving a wild-eyed Joan Blondell, turn-of-the-century laundry practices, hilariously artificial stock footage of birds, and the gayest pair of pajamas ever shown on film. It’s a masterpiece of barely-submerged sexual passion, and really, really funny.

The Mad Miss Manton (1938)
Directed by: Leigh Jason
Written by: Wislon Collison & Philip G. Epstein

If there was one thing rich people in the 30s seemed to do a lot of, it was act silly and stumble into murder mysteries. Both are true of Barbara Stanwyck in The Mad Miss Manton, a fast-paced, sharp-witted (screenplay by Philip G. Epstein of the famous Casablanca-writing Epstein brothers), whirling dervish of a movie. As Melsa Manton, has a hard time convincing anyone there’s actually been a murder, thanks to her reputation as the leader of a pack of chattering rich gals well-known to the press and public for causing trouble. All of these things are true. It only makes it more difficult when Henry Fonda, the reporter she hates for giving her that deserved reputation, loudly falls in love with her, thus inaugurating a classic screwball love-battle.

My only real complaint about the movie is the presence of Hattie MacDaniel in one of her “black dialect maid” roles, but if I didn’t watch any movies with egregious racism in them than I’d NEVER get to enjoy classic Hollywood.

Five Star Final (1931)
Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy
Written by: Robert Lord & Byron Morgan

What better film for our current era of unruly and ethics-free journalism than Five Star Final, in which city editor Edward G. Robinson is forced against his will to destroy a few perfectly innocent lives in the hunt for a big story. Pushed to increase circulation by his bosses, Robinson (and adoring secretary Aline MacMahon, worlds away from her ruthless mantrap in Gold Diggers of 1933) agrees to dig up the 20 year-old murder committed by Nancy Voorhees (not Jason’s mom), now a domestic housewife living in anonymity with her husband and grown daughter. The best part, though, is the reporter he chooses to do the digging -- creepy ex-seminarian-turned-sleazeball Vernon Isopod, played by a pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff at his absolute slimiest.

This being a 30s newspaper melodrama, things quickly take a tragic turn, leading to desperate soul-searching by Robinson. As heavy-handed as it is (and as fascinatingly creaky is the acting by former silent star H. B. Warner playing Voorhees’s husband), the story is punchy, brisk, and gets you in the gut. There’s something viscerally moving and repulsive about the final shot of that day’s paper being swept out of the filthy gutter by a street cleaner -- today’s news is tomorrow’s trash, and the people ruined by it are quickly forgotten.

God’s Country (1986)
Directed by: Louis Malle

America is an interesting place. That’s the first thing you learn from Louis Malle’s documentary about the tiny farming town of Glencoe, Minnesota. It’s almost as if the act of pointing a camera at something makes it newly fascinating and unique, even farmers at work, old ladies watering flowers, or middle American weddings. The variety of lives taking place in a seemingly boring place is bewildering, and the minimal narration or viewpoint turn the film into a strange rorschach test of the viewer’s own sensibilities. What comes through most of all is Malle’s wonder at the United States and the people in it.

Of course, that’s only the main body of the film. Most of the footage was shot in 1979, but in order to finish it Malle returned in 1985 to revisit some of the people and places from the earlier footage. The juxtaposition is, at times, jarring -- between back then and slightly-less-back-then the bottom dropped out of the farming economy, making life harder for this bunch of folks previously excited to be leaving behind the strife of the 70s. But there’s also a real joy to how little some things have changed. The old woman is still watering her flowers, life continues, America still exists and the fundamental fact of its character goes unchanged.

Perhaps the thing that’s most striking about
God’s Country is that the point of it seems to be that it has no point. Malle may have perhaps begun shooting with the idea of revealing the closed-mindedness of the American “heartland”, but it soon becomes a series of people telling their stories and revealing themselves as human beings. Aside from some anti-Reagan stuff at the end (which 25 years later feels kind of quaint, if still heart-breaking), there are few political axes or social indictments -- if people are shown being foolish it’s merely because people do foolish things. Like most great documentaries, God’s Country is at its best because it has set out not to explicitly argue a point of view, but just to document something. The beauty of it is how well it documents something that many of us would wrongly assume isn’t worth documenting at all.

The Driver (1978)
Directed by: Walter Hill
Written by: Walter Hill

Ryan O’Neal is a professional getaway driver. The BEST professional getaway driver. Bruce Dern is a detective dedicated to finally catching him. There’s a femme fatale-ish woman, some untrustworthy crooks who’ve contracted The Driver, and assorted other lowlifes. Nobody has any real names, and there’s not a hell of a lot of dialogue. And it’s kind of the best car-based action thriller ever.

Now don’t get me wrong -- I’m not a huge fan of driving movies. I like car chases, but I don’t like movies about cars. The same way that I love westerns, but I lose interest when they spend too much time with the horses. Luckily, The Driver isn’t some pretentious paean to the glory of the open road, like Vanishing Point. If anything, it feels like the feature length spin-off of the slickest, coolest, most car chasingest crime TV series never made. When we drop in on the film, most of the character relationships already exist. The story doesn’t necessarily go anywhere, and there aren’t any big emotional changes. There’s just The Driver being chased by The Detective while he tries to stay somewhat principled in a life of crime. If there was any justice in the world, it would have aired every wednesday night on ABC from 1979 - 1985.

And the car scenes are pretty awesome. My personal favorite is when The Driver, in order to show off his skills to a particularly arrogant crook, methodically demolishes an expensive car by driving just close enough to the pillars of a parking garage to snap off the doors, mirrors, lights, and so forth while never endangering anyone inside. And if a scene where a man methodically destroys a car doesn’t interest you, than I think we have no business talking to each other.

Elliott Kalan
still writes for “The Daily Show”, still co-stars on a very funny podcast called The Flophouse, and still hosts a wildly entertaining monthly screening series at 92Y-Tribeca in New York called Closely Watched Films. But you already knew all that. What’s new is that he’s one of the authors of a new book, and he’s gotten himself married off. Sorry, ladies.