Underrated

Underrated Movie #148: Peeping Tom

Title: Peeping Tom
Year: 1960
Director: Cockeyed Caravan favorite Michael Powell
Writer: Leo Marks
Stars: Carl Boehm, Moira Shearer, Anna Massey, Maxine Audley

The Story: A psychopathic cameraman gives women screentests, then murders them with the sharpened end of one leg of his tripod, while capturing the horror on their faces. Can the love of his neighbor keep him from killing again, or will it take the police?

How it Came to be Underrated: This is a bit of a stretch. It was certainly unfairly ignored and/or condemned at the time of its release, but it has long-since been discovered and lauded by Scorsese and others. But it’s still not a household name, and it deserves to be ranked alongside its close cousin, Psycho.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Powell’s career consistently paralleled Hitchcock’s, except for the fact that when Hitch left for America and became a broadly popular master filmmaker, Powell stayed home in England and became an increasingly strange and unique artist. Then, in 1960, both geniuses had the same idea: Throw propriety to the wind and make a lurid little serial killer movie that broke every taboo. Amazing, Hitchcock succeeded in bringing his audience along with him down this dark hole, but Powell didn’t. Audiences were revolted by this movie and Powell’s career was ruined. But for fans of both, it’s hard to imagine one without the other. (One big difference, though, is the presence of color. No director has ever made a more poetic and bold use of color than Powell.)
  2. This is the movie that launched a thousand film theorists. In the ‘80s and ’90s, “gaze theory” was all the rage. It explored the viewer’s fetishistic craving for horrific images, especially of violence towards women. Boehm’s killer tripod became the ultimate expression of this theory, but it also showed the problem: these theorists sought to condemn both viewers and filmmakers as un-self-aware partners in victimization, but Powell was all too aware of his own culpability, and he forced his viewers to accept theirs as well. All too often, these theorists claimed that they were revealing accidental subtext when they were really just re-stating the text.
  3. The backstory is that our killer was raised by a B.F. Skinner-like psychiatrist who filmed his son’s entire childhood, subjecting him to terrible things and capturing his reactions on film. So how does Marks reveal this horrific backstory? Does Boehm tell someone about it? No, that’s not visual. Does he watch the films over and over by himself? Slightly better, but too bleak. Here’s the best version: His flirtatious neighbor barges into his apartment and asks to see a movie in his home theater. He can’t resist showing these “home movies,” though it may ruin the budding relationship. This way, our hope and despair are intertwined.
  4. Here’s the ultimate example of the ticking clock for a scene. Boehm is in the middle of developing the film of his last victim’s death when his crush stops by again. The conversation is pleasant, but if he keeps talking to her too long, he will ruin the film of his previous kill. Powell literally intercuts the timer in the darkroom with their flirtatious conversation, until Boehm is ultimately forced to decide between the two.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Two other underrated post-modern psycho-sexual thrillers from the ‘60s include Sam Fuller’s Naked Kiss and Bogdanovich’s first movie Targets.

How Available Is It?: For once, we have a print that looks absolutely gorgeous on Watch Instantly. There’s also a Criterion Collection DVD, but I haven’t seen it.

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Underrated Movie #147: Wendy and Lucy

Title: Wendy and Lucy
Year: 2008
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writers: Jon Raymond and Kelly Reichardt, from the short story “Train Choir” by Raymond
Stars: Michelle Williams, Lucy the dog, Will Oldham, Will Patton 

The Story: Destitute drifter Wendy, traveling with her dog Lucy, is making her way towards Alaska looking for work, but they get separated after a series of misfortunes in Oregon. As Wendy’s search for Lucy becomes more desperate, she realizes how untenable her life has become.
 
How it Came to be Underrated: Reichardt has a small-but-devoted following and she seems to have no trouble getting her movies made, but she’s still far too little-known. 

Why It’s Great:
  1. Reichardt’s first movie won her a lot of fans, but the most important one was clearly Michelle Williams, whose offer to star in the next two movies no doubt helped quite a bit with financing. Williams’s stunning, utterly unglamorous performance shows how you can be totally naturalistic and yet heartbreaking at the same time.
  2. Reichardt’s movies are sometimes lumped in with the “mumblecore” genre, but she and her characters are far more concerned with real world problems, rather than awkwardness or enuii. She really has more in common with the Italian Neorealists: Basically, this movie is about what happens to one poor girl who finds herself living both The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D. at the same time.
  3. Whatever happened to Will Patton? As sort of a poor man’s Gene Hackman, he made a nice career for himself by being the best thing about a lot of not-so-great movies and TV shows. I always thought he would helm his own “Law and Order” or “CSI” spin-off some day, but he just disappeared… until he showed up again in Reichardt’s movies, of all places, with his gruff charm still intact.
  4. SPOILER: I’m not a dog person, so I thought I would be immune from this movie’s tear-jerking, but boy was I wrong. In fact, early on, when an asshole-ish character says, “if a person can’t afford dog food, they shouldn’t have a dog”, I found myself thinking, “Well I kinda agree.” Then I got to the end, when Williams herself ultimately comes to that same conclusion, which is one of the most painful moments I’ve ever seen onscreen. I choke up every time I even hear the title of this movie!
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Reichhardt’s other two movies are also excellent. Her first, Old Joy, tells the tale of two estranged friends on a hike in the woods, and her third, Meek’s Cutoff, brings back Williams for an allegorical wagon train period-piece.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and Netflix Watch Instantly, as are all of Reichardt’s movies.

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Underrated Movie #147: Mickey One

Title: Mickey One
Year: 1965
Director: Arthur Penn
Writer: Alan M. Surgal
Stars: Warren Beatty, Alexandra Stewart, Hurd Hatfield, Franchot Tone, Kamatari Fujiwara

The Story: An ultra-cool Detroit nightclub comic finds himself on the wrong side of his club’s mobbed-up owner. Fleeing on the lam to the seedy side of Chicago, he imagines killers are hiding in every shadow… but he has a pathological urge to return to the stage...
 
How it Came to be Underrated: This movie has two big problems: it’s always divided audiences, and it’s always been hard to find. After wildly mixed early reviews, it was dumped as a drive-in movie, where audiences must have been truly baffled, since it was one of the first attempts to do a dryly-surreal American art-film. The movie has never been on video, and even when it shows up in revival theaters, it continues to attract as many detractors as fans. I happen to love it.
 
Why It’s Great:
  1. By 1965, there was a huge gap between the unapologetic artistry of European cinema and America’s widescreen technicolor blandness, but a few brave souls wanted to drag Hollywood into the modern age, and none moreso than Warren Beatty (of all people). He really wanted to hire Godard or Truffaut to come over the pond, but instead, he made do with ambitious American TV director Arthur Penn. This was their first attempt to import a new wave sensibility, and they succeeded onscreen, but not in theaters. Nevertheless the pair tried again two years later with Bonnie and Clyde and finally ignited an American Renaissance.
  2. American street-level noir and European high-minded existentialism have always been incestuously entertwined: Nobody believed Camus when he said that “The Stranger” was merely his attempt to imitate James M. Cain, but he wasn’t half wrong, and noir itself never would have taken hold without the infusion of émigrés fleeing Hitler. (even then, it took the French to recognize the genre and name it). Penn’s oddball intellectual noir delicately straddles the end of one era (noir) and the beginning of another (art cinema), not belonging to either but worthy of both.
  3. The offbeat sensibility and staccato rhythms make this movie the visual equivalent of jazz, and so it’s only fitting that it’s got a hopping jazz score by the great Stan Getz.
  4. Beatty always seemed miscast to me in movies like The Parallax View and Dick Tracy… Basically I think that he’s only really good at playing one thing: angry, half-witted loverboys whose charm masks a deeper angst. ...But whenever he got a role like that, he was amazing. After all, many or our greatest stars made a nice living for themselves by doing one thing well.
  5. This kafka-esque nightmare is actually a great metaphor for the bleak life of a stand-up comic, then and now, where the goal is to “kill” onstage before the audience can do the same to you. At least these days the mob no longer runs the nightclubs, so that’s less literal, though just as figurative.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Another fun attempt to merge jazz sensibility and noir style was the short-lived 50s TV show “Johnny Staccato”, starring John Cassavetes as a bebop pianist who moonlights as a hardboiled detective. It’s now on DVD. Alice’s Restaurant is another great Penn movie and Funny Bones is another darkly comic look at stand-up.

How Available Is It?: After the floodgates broke open last week, there’s no stopping me now: This is another only-on-bit-torrent special. The print I found is good but a little small.
 
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Underrated Movie #146: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion

Title: Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion
Year: 1970
Director: Elio Petri
Writers: Elio Petri and Ugo Pirro
Stars: Gian Maria Volonte, Florinda Bolkan, Gianni Santuccio, Orazio Orlanda

The Story: As Italy’s postwar government slowly devolves back towards becoming a police state, an unhinged chief of detectives decides to test the limits of his power by murdering his lover, then leaving a series of clues pointing towards his own guilt, desperately hoping to be caught, but knowing full well how unlikely that is.

How it Came to be Underrated: This is a special case, it was not underrated at the time: in fact it won the Best Foreign Film Oscar…But, for some reason (which I’ve never been able to determine), it has never been available on video or disc in America. Until recent advances in piracy, it could be seen only at revival houses. Inevitably, it has been forgotten here, which is a shame, since it’s a masterpiece.

Why It’s Great:
  1. Also forgotten in this country is the great Gian Maria Volonte, though you’ve probably seen him more that you realize: as the bad guys in Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More and co-star of Melville’s heist epic The Red Circle, for instance. His coiled fury is utterly hypnotic, hiding a sublimated maelstrom of clashing emotions: guilt for his murder, hatred and lust for his dead mistress, anger at his colleagues, and utter despair at the state of the world.
  2. Volonte’s character has no confidant, so how do we know what he’s doing as he manipulates the system, much less what he’s thinking? Luckily his victim was a kinky murder-groupie and he used to explain the wickedness of the system to her during their assignations. Those flashbacks now echo through his head as a bizarre greek chorus, commenting and explaining on his actions. It’s a clever and entertaining conceit.
  3. Though no cop would admit it in court, they know all too well that most witnesses cannot accurately describe a face they’ve just seen. Volonte’s detective has had that working against him so long that he can’t resist using it to his advantage now, delighting in the act of prolonging eye contact with witnesses to his crime and cover-up, daring them to finally get it right for once, but knowing that the system only sees what it wants to see.
  4. This world isn’t so far away from ours: Steve Jobs refused to put license plates on his car, knowing that no cop in Cupertino dared ticket him, but all that power never made him happy. As terrible as it is to be in a situation where you know you’re being discriminated against, it’s also sickening in its own way to realize that you’re getting unfair advantages. This movie shows how you cannot have contempt for others without also having growing contempt for yourself.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Another brilliant Italian movie from the same year, also about a kinky conscience-stricken fascist, was Bertolucci’s The Conformist. Rewatching this, I also saw connections to the recent German stunner The Lives of Others

How Available Is It?: I don’t usually feature movies that are only available on bit torrent, but I was dying to see this again so I made an exception. Since it doesn’t seem likely to ever be released here, you may have to take drastic measures. For what it’s worth, there are great prints floating around out there in the ether.
 
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Underrated Movie #145: Every Little Step


Title: Every Little Step
Year: 2008
Directors: Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern
Stars: Bob Avian, Marvin Hamlisch, Baayork Lee, Jay Binder

The Story: A fascinating and suspenseful documentary about the casting process for the 2005 revival of “A Chorus Line” on Broadway that, like the musical, quickly becomes about so much more: the economy, the American Dream, the creative life, and the existential dilemmas that everyone has to face.

How it Came to be Underrated: This had a brief run here in New York where it was popular with Broadway fans, but it hasn’t yet pulled off the crossover appeal of the original show, reaching a broader audience who will discover that there’s more here than meets the eye. This is one of the best documentaries of the last ten years and I cannot recommend it enough. 

Why It’s Great:
  1. When the movie begins, our sympathy is totally with the actors, and we take offense at the indignity of the whole process. But then, as so often happens in stories, our sympathies begin to creep upward towards the bosses. The turning point comes when the casting directors have to listen to thirty different Maggies blow the high note on “At the Ballet.” Suddenly, all you care about is their suffering. In the end, despite the fact that they started with 3000 wildly talented hopefuls for 20 parts, you actually begin to worry that the casting directors won’t find anybody good enough.
  2. One thing that makes the process especially tough for both sides is that these characters all describe their own body type, so even more than usual, the actors have a fatalistic sense that they’ll be judged more on “look” than acting ability. But then we get to the most amazing moment in the movie: An unassuming Asian guy named Jason Tam gets up to read for a white role and he goes so deep into the monologue that he begins to weep, and then everybody watching this movie begins to weep, and then even the casting directors, who have been listening to this same monologue over and over all damn day (and for the last 30 years), begin to weep! Suddenly, nobody could care less that he doesn’t have the right look. That’s an audition.
  3. The editing is breathtaking. It’s the ultimate post-modern nesting doll of a movie, with six overlaid parallel stories: the original, desperate life stories of a group of dancers, the versions of their stories that they put on tape one night in 1975, the original Broadway musical they created from those tapes, the revival being mounting in 2005, and the real stories we’re seeing onscreen of all the dancers trying out to star in that revival. And yet all of these are the same story: we see our auditioners tell the camera how badly they need this show, then we see them audition by singing songs about how badly they need the show within the show…
  4. …It could have been a navel-gazing mess, but it works for the same reason that “A Chorus Line” works, because none of this is really about dance. It’s about the most universal dilemma or all: individuality vs. solidarity. As Frank Rich points out in the special features, the existential power of the show comes from the fact that none of these characters is even trying out for a once-of-a-lifetime role that’s going to make them a star: their goal is to be allowed to melt into an anonymous, homogenous, background chorus line. But in order to earn the right to melt away, they need to prove that they’ve become the most extraordinary individual they can be.
  5. The ending was a little anti-climactic for Betsy and me, because we had seen the amazing revival on Broadway so we already knew who was going to get each role, but that also added another level of poignancy because we knew that, despite glowing reviews and strong sales for the first year, the show had already closed by the time the movie opened.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Another recent documentary in the same vein was Stage Door, about a camp for theater kids, which has one of the most heartbreaking endings of any doc I’ve seen. Another great doc from around this time about a competition with larger metaphorical meaning was Spellbound.

How Available Is It?: But wait, we still have one more meta-layer: the DVD commentary, which is fun, as are the deleted scenes and various interviews.
 
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Underrated Movie #144: Ronin


Title: Ronin
Year: 1998
Director: John Frankenheimer
Writers: Story by J. D. Zeik, Screenplay by Zeik and David Mamet (credited as “Richard Weisz”, because he was pissed they didn’t give him solo credit.)
Stars: Robert DeNiro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgard, Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce

The Story: A group of ex-cold-warriors from different countries, all thrown out of work, assemble for a straight-up mercenary job, hired by the IRA to steal a mysterious case from the Russians. Let the double-crossing and triple-crossing ensue!

How it Came to be Underrated: After the Berlin Wall fell, the spy genre seemed in danger of dying. It first started to return with movies like this in the late ‘90s, but it wasn’t until The Bourne Identity and Casino Royale came out that audiences were fully back on board. This smart adrenaline-fest is at the same level as those and deserves to be rediscovered.

Why It’s Great:
  1. I’ve listened to hundreds of director commentaries over the years, but only a few have stayed with me. This is one of the very best. Frankenheimer intensely and entertainingly explains every decision he made. He tries his best to make visible to his audience all of the invisible storytelling elements that only a great director can see.
  2. Frankenheimer talks about wanting to avoid bright colors, so he costumed accordingly and then threw tarps over any bright colors that he saw on the practical exterior sets. Nowadays (starting just two years later, actually) they would have just digitally dyed the whole movie blue in post-production, with a few orange highlights tossed in, despite the fact that this always looks horrible. I’m always baffled that actors don’t complain about the fact that they all look like corpses or oranges these days.
  3. Why are the movies David Mamet writes for others so much better than the movie he directs himself? First and foremost because he’s a terrible director. If you don’t believe me, read his book “On Directing Film”, which is firehose of contempt aimed at the art of acting. The second problem is that most of movies have the same twist: the woman screws everybody over. When he’s forced to collaborate, his worst instincts are tamped down. Perhaps the best situation is one like this where he simply adds his great dialogue to someone else’s story.
  4. That said, this dialogue is Mamet at his best. Mamet’s characters are always wonderfully guarded. The dialogue is not the most bad-ass thing they could say, but the most bad-ass thing they would say: “You every kill anybody?” [knowing smirk:] “I hurt somebody’s feelings once.” Or later: “Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt. That's the first thing they teach you.” “Who taught you?” “I don't remember. That's the second thing they teach you.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have an actor as good as DeNiro saying the lines.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Frankenheimer does his best here to top Willaim Friedkin’s bravura against-traffic freeway chase in To Live and Die in L.A. Though he was the senior director, it wasn’t the first time he followed in Friedkin’s footsteps: Frankenheimer directed the little-seen The French Connection II, which is a great little thriller if you don’t hold it up to the standard of Friedkin’s more ambitious original.

How Available Is It?: It’s on Watch Instantly, but you owe it to yourself to order the DVD, both for the commentary and the superior resolution in the action sequences.

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Underrated Movie #143: Be Kind Rewind

Title: Be Kind Rewind
Year: 2008
Director: Michel Gondry
Writers: Michel Gondry
Stars: Mos Def, Jack Black, Danny Glover, Mia Farrow, Melonie Diaz, Sigourney Weaver

The Story: Glover runs an endangered old school VHS rental store in a working class neighborhood in Passaic, New Jersey. When he leaves his store in the hands of Def and Black, they accidentally erase all the tapes, so they decide to recreate the movies from scratch, playing all the parts themselves. The “sweded” version turn out to be wildly popular—but can they save the store from developers?How it Came to be Underrated: Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was one of the best and most acclaimed movies of the ‘00s, but he failed to get much traction with his follow-ups. When I saw this opening weekend, I thought it this would be the hit that finally made him fully bankable, but instead it was greeted with general revulsion. How come no one else could see the masterpiece I saw? I think part of the problem was the casting of Black: He’s wonderful, but some smart moviegoers who don’t like him stayed away, while some of his fans were infuriated by the movie’s causal pace.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Hugo was “a love letter to film” that was slapped together out of post-production digital special effects. (Couldn’t they just have made those drawings fly around the room on set, rather than fake that in post? For that matter, did they even set foot in Paris?) The Artist is a much better movie, which actually uses old-fashioned storytelling to re-create the early days of Hollywood. But if you really want to be filled with awe at the magic of the movies, nothing is better than Be Kind Rewind. Gondry captures the democratic essence of movie-making: a collective art form that creates collective meaning, by and for a whole community.
  2. VHS was, in retrospect, a truly terrible technology: flimsy, blurry, easily degraded… so why do I miss wandering those aisles so much? So many parts of America have died in the last ten years, and we’ve all just started accepting that these things are gone for good. First they came for the small businesses, like all the funky little independent VHS stores and bookstores of my youth, now they’re coming for the post office, the public schools, the libraries... At what point are we going to say, hey, not everything can be bigger and more profitable every year?
  3. I made movies on VHS (and S-VHS, and Hi-8, and Mini DV, and 8mm, and 16mm and…) and this movie captures the madness and ecstacy of amateur production better than any other. I can’t tell you how many times I had friends get exasperated from acting in my amateur productions, and storm off set, only to howl with delight when they saw their faces onscreen in the final product, after which all was forgiven.
  4. How wonderful to see Farrow delivering a typically understated performance as one of the neighborhood eccentrics who habituate the store. The most tragic outcome of the horrible end of her relationship with Woody Allen was that it caused all of her amazing performances in his movies to seem too depressing to watch in retrospect. She’s massively talented and I hope she still has more great roles in her future.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: The two movies that Gondry made between this and Eternal Sunshine were also underrated: Science of Sleep is a sweet romantic comedy with Gael Garcia-Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg and Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is far more than just a great concert movie.

How Available Is It?: The DVD has the movie and an enjoyable 10 minute doc about shooting in Passaic, but not only is there no commentary from the always-delightful Gondry, but it doesn’t have any of the wonderful sweded videos that were on the movie’s website! What the hell??

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Underrated Movie #142: The Informant!


Title: The Informant!
Year: 2009
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Scott Z. Burns, based on the non-fiction book by Kurt Eichenwald
Stars: Matt Damon, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Tony Hale

The Story: Matt Damon is the real-life whistleblower Mark Whitacre who exposed the insidious agribusiness giant Archers Daniels Midland to the FBI. He does an amazing job as their inside man, but they soon discover that their informant hasn’t been telling them (or anybody) the whole truth.

How it Came to be Underrated: (I’ll go a little more in depth than usual)

  • This movie has no one to blame for its own failure but itself. A great true story, a brilliant screenplay, brisk direction and an Oscar-worthy lead performance were all sabotaged by terrible titles, the worst score in movie history, and a rogue exclamation point. In short, this was a great movie that was totally ruined in post-production.
  • What went wrong?? I have two theories: the simple one is that the original movie didn’t “test” well enough, and the studio made the inane decision to belated repackage it as an all-out comedy.
  • But here’s the more elaborate theory: Soderbergh rightly saw this a chance to do a ‘70s-style conspiracy thriller, but then he made the maddening decision to actually add a “‘70s style” to the movie, right down to a “groovy” font and a godawful Marvin Hamlisch score that sounds like the hold music at a clown college.
  • One of the many reasons that this was terrible decision is that we’ve had very few “early ‘90s” era period pieces and this could have been an excellent opportunity to actually talk about the meaning of that era and its corruption, rather than pretend that these events only make sense in some sort of Nixonian context, as the titles and music imply.

Why It’s Nevertheless Great:

  1. Eichenwald’s astounding journalism (and storytelling instincts) produced an all-too-believable portrait of what real whistleblowers are like. The impulse that causes these people to transgress society’s boundaries and tell uncomfortable truths soon starts to run away from them. If society is telling you that right is wrong, it becomes hard to remind yourself that wrong isn’t therefore right.
  2. I first heard Eichenwald’s book dramatized as a thrilling hour-long “This American Life” story, and my first thought was: “This has to become a movie!” But then I thought again and realized how hard that would be. Luckily, Burns was up to the challenge and then some. The first trick was to focus on Whitacre, and not his target. Audiences find it hard to care about white-collar crime, but everybody loves to watch a weasel get caught by his own lies.
  3. Of course, for better or worse, Burns’s choice here ironically mirrors Whitacre’s own real-life predicament: He exposed his company’s theft of hundreds of millions of dollars, but then the FBI discovered that, along the way, he had stolen more than a few millions for himself. Inevitably, the FBI decided that it’d be much easier to go after their own whistleblower, who was, after all, cooperating with them, than it was to take down a stonewalling corporation with a bottomless legal budget.
  4. Burns’s second trick was to write one of my all time favorite voice-overs, (albeit one that only an actor of Damon’s caliber could have pulled off) Long before the audience (or Whitacre himself) is willing to admit that he’s crazy, the evidence is there for us to hear, in the form of an out-of-control stream of consciousness voiceover, in which Whitacre pieces together a pseudo-reality patchwork of fact and fiction from a million different sources, including the novels of Michael Crichton and John Grisham.
  5. This all culminates in an absolutely stunning scene where Whitacre’s mouth finally catches up with his now-exhausted brain, and the voice-over slowly begins to overlap with what he’s actually saying out loud. It’s a crime that Damon didn’t get an Oscar, or even a nomination, for his riveting performance.
  6. I was happy that Heavenly Creatures made Kate Winslet a star, but disappointed that her great co-star Melanie Lynskey seemed to totally disappear. But lo and behold, Lynskey has very slowly re-emerged (purged of her NZ accent) in a steady stream of quietly powerful character roles. Check out her credits, you’ve probably seen her (and liked her) more often then you realize. She’s does a typically great job as Damon’s weary wife.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: A similar movie from around the same time that did a better job maintaining the right tricky tone was Burn After Reading. The show “Homeland” has a very similar hero, whose bipolar disorder both helps and harms a government investigation.

How Available Is It?: Netflix only has a bare-bones, but nice-looking DVD.

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Underrated Movie #141: The Man in the White Suit

Title: The Man in the White Suit
Year: 1951
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Writers: Roger MacDougall, John Dighton and Alexander Mackendrick, based on a play by MacDougall
Stars: Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough, Vida Hope

The Story: A clever inventor in a dreary mill town creates the world’s most perfect fabric, which never wears out or gets dirty, but soon the bosses and labor are united in an attempt to squelch the invention before it can ruin their livelihoods. He goes on the run, but the sample suit he’s made stands out like a light bulb.

How it Came to be Underrated: This movie, The Ladykillers, and especially Sweet Smell of Success should have made Mackendrick a permanent house-hold name, but his movies remain cult-hits, known mostly to film buffs.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Guinness’s brilliant and wholly believable performance is the polar opposite of the “coldly logical scientist” stereotype. Instead, he’s touchingly sensitive, desperate for society’s approval, but only on his own naïve terms. The moment when he finally realizes how much unintentional suffering his invention would cause is subtly devastating.
  2. It’s a funny movie, but there aren’t actually any jokes, per se. It’s certainly satirical, and it’s structured like a zippy screwball farce, but everybody plays it straight, and the movie has a lot of serious things to say about the ironic dual-edged sword of “progress”. When Guinness goes on the run, only children help him. They’re the only ones to whom the future is worth more than the past.
  3. But the fable plays differently today. At the time, opposition to the labor-saving properties of synthetic materials seemed backward and misguided, but today we would ask, “what chemicals are in it? Are they carcinogenic? Are these resources as renewable as old fashioned wool and cotton?” In retrospect, the faith-in-science ‘50s seem like a strange mini-enlightenment, and our new distrust-of-science era (on both sides of the political divide, albeit for different reasons) is in some ways a romantic revival.
  4. After his American career trailed off, Mackendrick became a legendary filmmaking instructor, and I’ll spend some time later this week working through the list of rules that commenter “J.S.” unearthed in the comments last week, so stay tuned for that. Many of his rules are about how to trim down and speed up a story. This 85-minute-wonder is a beautiful example

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Guinness triggered another manhunt in The Lavender Hill Mob. He got to play another unrecognized genius (at least in his own mind) in The Horse’s Mouth.

How Available Is It?: Netflix has it on Watch Instantly but not on DVD. Luckily the Watch Instantly print is beautiful.

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Underrated Movie #140: Dark Days


Title: Dark Days
Year: 2000
Director: Marc Singer (Not the Beastmaster, a different guy)
Stars: Ralph, Dee, Henry, Brian, Clarence, Julio, Lee, Jose, etc…

The Story: A haunting, funny and eerie visit with the “mole people”: A group of surprisingly upbeat homeless people who have found a sustainable life for themselves in abandoned train tunnels beneath the streets of Manhattan. They tap into the electrical grid for power and the pipes for showers, scavenge together houses for themselves complete with working kitchens, and try to survive.

How it Came to be Underrated: This was Singer’s first and only association with any film of any kind, and so it’s in danger of being forgotten as a great one-off.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This movie is all the more remarkable if you know the backstory: A British would-be male model comes to America, crashes on the couches of other fashion world orbiters, finds out about the tunnel-dwellers for the first time and casually decides to make a documentary about them despite having no idea what he’s doing. His artsy friends convince him that he must shoot on film despite the fact that the light conditions are going to be non-existent and huge amounts of footage would be necessary on no budget. This should all add up to a disastrous, pretentious incompetent mess. But, amazingly, the final product is a profound, luminous work of art.
  2. The level of access is astounding. Singer eventually moved down there with them and built his own home, not to make himself a character in the movie, but just to get to know them. When one of the “houses” burns down. creating a homeless problem even amongst the homeless, what Singer doesn’t tell you onscreen is that he then surrendered his own house to the person whose house burned.
  3. The ironies pile up thick and fast. Most of them are defiantly proud to be homeless, but life underground becomes all about cooking, cleaning, security, and pressuring each other to give up drugs. Starting from scratch, they re-create everything they left behind (See the hair-cutting salon below). At one point a can-recycler talks about trying to make more money during the week so that he can take Saturday or Sunday off, as if that were a great new idea.
  4. Singer’s also coy about the fact that the footage he shot helps contribute to the movie’s shockingly happy ending. Instead, he rightly gives the credit to the resourceful mole people who, for the most part, saved themselves. When one of them dismantles his home so that he can move to the surface at the end, he casually reminds his friend, “Don’t mix the dirty clothes with the clean ones.” It’s a cathartic moment for the audience.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: The most harrowingly realistic fictional movie about homelessness was Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge. Chaplin’s The Kid, one of the first ever feature films, is also surprising honest about the subject.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and Watch Instantly.

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