Underrated Movie #7: Clockwatchers

Title: Clockwatchers
Year: 1998
Director: Jill Sprecher
Writers: Jill and Karen Sprecher
Stars: Toni Collette (Sixth Sense), Parker Posey (Party Girl), Lisa Kudrow (Friends), Alanna Ubach

The Story: Four young women temps form a fragile friendship in a sea of stultifying cubicles, until a series of unsolved petty thefts brings chaos and distrust.

How it Came to be Underrated: 1998 was probably the peak year for American Indie cinema, which meant that small movies like this one could get made, but this still never found the audience it deserved.

Why It’s Great:

  1. The first rule of America: don’t talk about work! The cancer of perpetual underemployment spread so quietly through America because of one magical word: shame. This is a movie that’s not afraid to talk about work and confront that shame. These women aren’t protesting their job situation to their boss because they don’t even know if they have a boss. This is a modern-day fable about how sublimated rage will eventually make us destroy ourselves and each other.
  2. What makes the movie work is the compassionate, unblinking eye it casts on the tiny little details we cling to in our lives. We feel the impact of the petty thefts that tear apart the office because Sprecher knows how to capture the small moments that cause us to invest transitory objects with personal meaning—meaning that we can never explain to others when those objects go away.
  3. It’s rare to see a movie about work, but it’s even more rare to see movie about straight women whose problems are neither caused by nor solved by men! It passes the Bechdel test, and then some. True, one of the four is getting into a bad marriage, but that is shown as a symptom of her problems, not the source. For the powerless, a bad relationship is jut one more bad option in a sea of bad options.
  4. Watching it again, I came to the bittersweet conclusion that this movie is now a time capsule of a long-gone era: the indie boom. The filmmaking is somewhat dated now in a '90s-ish-Parker-Posey kind of way*, but that also gives it a new value, as an excellent exemplar of a time when there was a thriving art-house circuit for “small” movies. Wave good-bye, folks, because I don’t think it’s coming back.

*(that’s an unfair thing to say, since Parker Posey is actually great here, and I miss her)

Underrated Compared To: Various darlings of the Sundance era, but that entire generation of filmmakers is having such a hard time right now that I hate to add insult to injury.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: The Sprecher sisters had a follow-up film that was also worth watching called “13 Conversation About One Thing”

How Available Is It?: It’s available on a bare-bones dvd, but not instantly.

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Welcome, actual readers!

After doing this blog in secret for six whole days, I've finally told some people about it. What do you think? Feel free to comment on the six offerings we've had so far. Tell me how wrong I am. Correct my facts and grammar. Use words like "meh" and "fail" and "pwned".

Underrated Movie #6: The Atomic Cafe

Title: The Atomic Cafe
Year: 1982
Writers and Directors: Kevin Rafferty, Jayne Loader, and Pierce Rafferty
Stars: None

The Story: A surreal montage constructed entirely out of “found footage” of newsreels and propaganda films, showing how Americans were lulled into accepting the risk of nuclear annihilation in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

How it Came to be Underrated: This film did achieve cult status in art houses and campus theaters, but there was really not yet any distribution structure in place for documentaries, so it could only reach as far as word-of-mouth could push it.

Why It’s Great:

  1. It’s really funny! I realize that it sounds dreadful, but trust me, it’s not. The deranged, lusty, zest for annihilation shown in the propaganda films starts to infect you as you watch it! Swinging song lyrics tell about emerging from your shelter to find that there’s “13 Women and Only One Man in Town!” Jocular scientists assure citizens that radiation effects wear off, and only the vain and easily manipulated worry about hair loss. Girl scouts teach a home-ec’ class how to make a satisfying meal from the canned goods in a fallout shelter. The whole thing is cut together with such zip and inspiration that you laugh until you weep.

  2. The film ends as a suburban dad, still wearing his shirt and tie underneath his radiation suit, gathers his family after a nuclear blast: “All in all, I’d say we’ve been very lucky around here. Nothing to do now but wait for orders from the authorities and relax!” There is no rebuttal from a modern day scientist. The filmmakers don’t jump in to narrate their point of view. They don’t have to. Propaganda footage, recut by a skilled editor, provides the ultimate condemnation of the original filmmakers.
  3. If I may be abstract for moment, that says a lot. What is filmmaking, in its simplest form? Is it a person with a movie camera, shooting footage, or a person at an editing table, cutting footage together? Which creates more meaning: the shot or the cut? There had always been films without cuts, from the earliest Lumiere films to experiments like Hitchcock’s Rope. If you could make a film without a cut, didn’t that prove the shot was more essential than the cut? Then this film came along. This is, essentially, a film without any shots! None of the visuals or audio used here was created by the filmmakers. Yet, merely by using the tool of editing, they create an entirely new meaning, not contained in the original footage. I’m an editor and I’ve always believed that there is more meaning created by a cut than a shot, and this is the film I use to back up my point.
  4. Ultimately, the fact that the film needs no narration or rebuttal interviews is a tribute to those dissenting scientists who, though they were dismissed as hysterical worrywarts, insisted on spreading the truth about atomic warfare. By 1982, due to a persistent effort to publicize suppressed data, everybody now knew that, no matter what they had been told, nuclear war was unwinnable and unsurvivable. More importantly, they knew that the government had known the facts all along. Audiences could now watch these films and see that their own government was sending them cheerfully to their deaths, which is a rather chilling experience. But also funny. Trust me.

Underrated Compared To: The bland histories of the cold war you get on TV.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Some of the same filmmakers made a follow-up film called Heavy Petting, which is also fun. Other great “found footage” films include Chris Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat and Mark Rappaport’s From the Journals of Jean Seberg.

How Available Is It?: It’s on dvd and available to watch instantly on Netflix.

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Underrated Movie #5: The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T.

Title: The Five Thousand Fingers of Dr. T
Year: 1952
Director: Roy Rowland (who?)
Writers: Dr. Seuss and Allan Scott from a story by Seuss
Stars: Tommy Rettig ("Lassie"), Hans Conreid (Peter Pan), Peter Lind Hayes, Mary Healy

The Story: Little Bart Collins, forced to practice the piano instead of playing outside, dreams up a nightmare world in which his piano instructor is an evil dictator building an army of enslaved boys. Bart recruits a salt-of-the-earth plumber to help him mount a revolution.

How it Came to be Underrated: Absurdism is never in fashion, but it’s baffling that this movie didn’t find some way to break through in the ‘50s, and even crazier that it didn’t become a campus favorite in the ‘60s or ‘70s. It has been rediscovered on dvd, but it’s hard to fathom that this movie still hasn’t become a household name like the Grinch or the Lorax.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Like Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, this is a movie about children as much as it’s a movie for children. Children can just enjoy it, but adult viewers will see how Bart's fantasy world reflects the dreams and fears of Bart’s waking life. It’s one of the most bizarre and artificial-looking movies ever created, but one that nevertheless has the ring of truth, since the emotions are real, the actors believe in what they’re doing, and everything has a certain deranged logic to it. I always defend horror movies by saying “Drama is how it is, horror is how it feels.” This is a movie about how life felt to a child of the '50s. Not just dread of piano lessons, but deeper fears of parental abandonment and atomic war seep out of poor Bart’s subconscious onto the screen. The ’50s may have been repressed, but they weren’t repressed very well.
  2. Pity the poor construction department who somehow managed to build a live-action approximation of Seuss’s drawings, one that actors could actually interact with and believe in!

    My favorite items, inevitably, are the beanies that the piano-playing army are forced to wear. Surely some of these beanies must have survived the shoot, right? If I ever spent a fortune on a collectible, it would be to own one of those original beanies.
  3. This song:

    and, okay, this musical number, set in “the dungeon for them what play all other instruments, except them what play the piano”:
  4. The final mystery: This is a satirical tale of a boy named Bart with an adult nemesis named Terwilliker, and yet Matt Groening has claimed that Bart Simpson’s name is merely an anagram of “brat” and that Bart’s nemesis Sideshow Bob Terwilliger was named after a street in Portland, Oregon, as were many other Simpsons characters. Dan Castanella, however, has claimed that Sideshow Bob, at least, did get his name from this movie. The world may never know.

Underrated Compared To: Those dreadful live-action ‘50s Disney movies.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: There’s nothing else remotely like this. Mary Poppins, maybe? That’s always worth watching again.

How Available Is It?: It’s on dvd, but not on Netflix watch instantly. Resist the temptation to just watch the musical sequences on YouTube.

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Underrated Movie #4: Two for the Road

Title: Two for the Road
Year: 1967
Director: Stanley Donen (Singing in the Rain, Charade)
Writer: Frederic Raphael (Darling, Eyes Wide Shut)
Stars: Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday), Albert Finney (Tom Jones), Eleanor Bron (Bedazzled), William Daniels (Dr. Craig on St. Elsewhere)

The Story: A quarrelling English couple, flying to Paris, are overwhelmed by jumbled-up memories of five previous trips across the continent, back when they were broke and happy.

How it Came to be Underrated: Donen’s musicals were so great, right out of the gate, that his later, more humanistic work was seen as a disappointment at the time. So many directors who had been ahead of their time in the '50s found themselves left behind by the '60s (think Hitchcock), but Donen had the opposite problem—he embraced the sixties too fully and alienated his audience. As a result, we are still belatedly realizing how ambitious and smart his non-musicals were.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Mark Harris recently published a fantastic book, “Pictures at a Revolution”, about the tumultuous film year of 1967, when daring young American directors, inspired by anarchic French directors like Jean-Luc Godard, started making films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, which upset Hollywood’s fading aristocracy. Harris doesn’t mention Two for the Road, nor could he, without admitting that it’s the exception that proves the rule. Donen, though he epitomized old Hollywood class, also steals brazenly from Godard (a sped-up trip through a French landmark, jump cuts) and makes a film on par with those other, far more legendary breakthrough films.
  2. But the ambition of the direction was merely an attempt to do justice to an extremely modern, super-smart script. Raphael proves that you can take a tough, realistic look at modern relationships but still indulge yourself with some sparkling dialogue: “You were sniping. Just because you use a silencer, doesn’t mean you’re not a sniper” “When do we start? Yesterday? Yesterday I can’t do. I have things I have to do yesterday.”
  3. If nothing else, the movie would be worth a rental for one sequence alone. Anyone who has been driven insane by listening to parents who are over-indulgent of their children will be shocked to discover that this current archetype dates all the way back to 1967. The always wonderful Eleanor Bron and William Daniels get two of their best big-screen roles as maddeningly “modern” parents who drive Finney, Hepburn, and the whole audience into fits of rage.

  4. But the best thing this film is that it shows us so much more of Hepburn than we’d ever seen before, or would ever see again, as she was about to declare her early retirement. Throughout her career, she had been paired almost exclusively with much older men (Peck, Bogart, Cooper, Grant). Suddenly here she was kissing a man seven years her junior, no longer a supplicant, but a more-than-equal sparring partner. Also, she had finally parted ways with her longtime designer Givenchy, so we now get to see her as a dressed-down, modern woman. (She even wears a shiny vinyl suit! Meow!) This is the film that proves that underneath all that beauty was a genuinely great actress.

Underrated Compared To: It towers above such terrible late-Hepburn movies as Paris When it Sizzles and How to Steal a Million, but I would argue that it even stands up to Donen’s best, like Singing in the Rain and On the Town.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: All of Donen’s ‘60s films are well-worth seeing, especially Charade and Bedazzled.

How Available Is It?: It’s on Netflix on DVD and watch instantly, in its proper aspect ratio, I’m happy to say.

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Underrated Movie #3: Lost in America

Title: Lost in America
Year: 1985
Director: Albert Brooks
Writers: Albert Brooks and Monica Johnson
Stars: Albert Brooks (Broadcast News), Julie Hagerty (Airplane, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy)

The Story:
A middle-class L.A. couple decide to sell all their stuff, buy a Winnebago, and rediscover the American Dream, which turns out to be a nightmare. When a ill-timed stop in Vegas leaves them with nothing, they realize what it means to really start over.

How it Came to be Underrated: Brooks made ‘70s movies in the ‘80s, and no one knew what to do with them.

Why It’s Great:

  1. It’s really, really funny. Okay, it’s a little bit funnier if you have a job. Watching it again now, unemployed, it stings a little bit, but in a good way. My favorite moment is when Brooks, now a crossing guard, makes one final stand for dignity: “Don’t Call Me Retardo.”

  2. The movie begins with Brooks, lying awake in bed next to his sleeping wife, worry about his big promotion, and listening to the radio, where boob movie reviewer Rex Reed is complaining all the sex in modern movies. Yes, we’re supposed to roll our eyes, but not because we’re about to see any nudity. Brooks just wants us to think about what movies choose to show and what they don’t. Every year we watch a dozen movies set in L.A., but they’re never about L.A. They’re about lost places and lost times and lost emotions. Brooks isn’t interested in all that. Brooks’ movies don’t attempt to summon up the feeling of a lost era or invest life with an operatic intensity. He’s genuinely interested in the world around him. He wants to capture what the world actually looks like and how people actually act. Not because he wants to make us feel bad but because he wants to make us laugh and we’re going to laugh harder if it seems real and hits home.
  3. Brooks helped pioneer the comedy of awkward existential suffering that has now become a jackpot for Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) and Ricky Gervais (The Office), but he did it differently. Gervais invites us to scorn the self-serving characters he plays and David invites us join in on his scorn for modern life, but Brooks mined the same vein in a scorn-free way. Brooks’ characters are almost always in the wrong, but we support them because we wish the world could work the way they want it to. On the other hand, we’re equally sympathetic to the poor saps who have to endure his meltdowns.
  4. The comedy of awkwardness thrives on lingering deadpan reaction shots, drawn-out moments and scenes pushed to their painful breaking points, and yet, at 90 minutes, this movie still moves at a brisk pace. The secret is the use of ellipses. For these characters, making each decision is like pulling teeth, but once the decision is made, we jump way ahead and see the consequence, without a lot of pipe-laying in between. The movie is essentially a series of 10 9-minutes scenes, each one of which has the rise and fall of a hilarious one-act play.

Underrated Compared To: How many bad comedies became mega-hits in the 80s?

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Brooks first four films were all underseen gems. The others are Real Life (1978), Modern Romance (1980), and Defending Your Life (1990).

How Available Is It?: It’s on Netflix to “Watch Instantly” right now, and a DVD is in print. Unfortunately, the instant version has a 4:3 aspect ratio, so I suspect that this is a “pan-n-scan” version. I don’t know about the dvd.

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Underrated Movie #2: Charley Varrick

Title: Charlie Varrick
Year: 1973
Director: Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry)
Writers: Howard Rodman and Dean Reisner, from the Novel “The Looters” by John Reese
Stars: Walter Matthau (The Odd Couple), Joe Don Baker (Walking Tall), Felicia Farr, Andy Robinson (the killer from Dirty Harry), John Vernon (Dean Wermer in Animal House)

The Story: When Charlie Varrick was a crop duster, he was “The Last of the Independents”, but corporate consolidation froze him out of the business, so now he’s a bank robber. When his gang accidentally steals an unreported cache of mob money, he realizes that they’re in real trouble.

How it Came to be Underrated: This one is only underrated in the sense of being undiscovered. There were just too many great movies coming out in 1973. Everybody who sees it loves it. It’s the sort of movie that makes you happy to find someone else at a party who’s seen it.

Why It’s Great:

  1. We’ve seen it a million times: The heist gone wrong. The bag full of mob money. On the run from both the cops and the mob… until they make their stand. The only thing that makes this one different is the level of skill involved. It’s a master class in writing, directing, and acting. When but in the ‘70s could a guy who looks like Walter Matthau be able to make his living as a leading man in gritty thrillers? After all, compared to other '70s megastars like Elliot Gould and George Segal, he was downright manly. Matthau tears into the role as a consummate professional thief holding back a surge of regrets and recriminations.

  2. And when but in the ‘70s could a guy who looks like Walter Matthau seduce a lady by suddenly muttering, apropos of nothing: “I like your bed”.

    Cut to:

    Another satisfied customer.
  3. The big mistake that thrillers make today is that the director only enjoys crafting the suspense scenes, but they’re downright embarrassed to have to explain the plot. The dreaded “exposition” scenes are rushed through or “jazzed up” until they’re incomprehensible. Then, when we do get to the actual “thrilling” scenes, they don’t work because we’re no longer invested in the story. Siegel’s film contains more actual thrills than many more “stylish” thrillers precisely because he isn’t embarrassed by exposition. He makes every incidental character interesting by taking the time to live in their world and share with us their point of view. He knows that verisimilitude can make any scene interesting. For instance, when the mob killer is in town, his bosses arrange for him to stay the night at a New Mexico brothel they own in the area. When you see a brothel in a movie, it’s usually either unbelievably glamorous or unbelievably wretched. This one is just plain real. Here’s the sign:

    Here are the girls, neither fantasy figures nor pathetic victims:

    And here’s my favorite thing in the movie, the sign on the inside of the room they put him in:
    The sad, childlike, homemade quality of that sign says more about the poignant world of the girls there than any “mama didn’t love me” dialogue could.
  4. As the story unfolds, I love how Charley is always one step of the viewer, but only one step ahead. When the scene begins, we might not be sure why he’s doing what he's doing, or not know how he’s doing something, or what he’s going to do about some problem, but we catch up by the end of the scene with a little “a-ha!” when we figure it out. The writers toy with us, but they don’t abuse their position. There is no “everything you know is wrong” moment. Those moments are put there to show how clever the screenwriter is. In this movie, you’re thinking about how clever Charley is. And you feel pretty clever yourself every time that you realize what he’s up to.

Underrated Compared To: Siegel’s most popular early 70s thriller, Dirty Harry.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Matthau made two other great thrillers in the early 70s, The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Laughing Policeman. Don Siegel made more than a dozen fantastic little thrillers over the course of his long career. Two of the best are The Lineup and his remake of The Killers (1964).

How Available Is It?: It’s on Netflix to “Watch Instantly” right now, and a DVD is in print. Unfortunately, the instant version has a 4:3 aspect ratio, so I suspect that this is a “pan-and-scan” version. I don’t know about the dvd.

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Underrated Movie #1: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy

Title: A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy
Year: 1982
Director: Woody Allen
Writer: Woody Allen
Stars: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Jose Farrar (Cyrano de Bergerac), Julie Hagerty (Airplane), Tony Roberts (Annie Hall), Mary Steenburgen (Parenthood)

The Story: Three couples spend a weekend in the country in upstate New York at the beginning of the 20th Century. While there, they debate the existence of the spirit world and clumsily attempt to seduce each other’s partners.

How It Came to be Underrated: The disingenuous title does the movie no favors. This was the period of Allen’s greatest popularity with audiences, but the relationship was an uneasy one. In his previous movie Stardust Memories even aliens from outer space show up to tell Allen that “We preferred your earlier, funnier movies”. But Allen wanted to make intellectual movies like his European heroes, Bergman and Fellini. The title of this one teases the audience by recalling Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (but were afraid to ask), Allen’s last broad comedy, but it wasn’t a return to zaniness. In fact, this may be Allen’s most successful attempt to channel his European sensibilities. (Another factor was that Allen was averaging more than one movie a year at this time. This is a great movie, but it wasn’t even the best movie he released in 1982, since that was the year he also made Zelig, which has overshadowed this movie.)

Why it's Great:

  1. “European” can be a bad word for Allen, as when he too slavishly copies Bergman (see Interiors) or Fellini (see Alice), but this movie feels European in the best sense of the word. “Dramedy” is also always a shaky proposition. Why would someone who can make us laugh out loud choose to go for the soft chuckle instead? Why would a dramatic writer toss in a bunch of half-hearted jokes if they had something serious to say? But when dramedy is done right, it can be so buoyant and effervescent that it makes broad comedy or straight drama feel phony. This feels like real life, only richer.
  2. Although Allen always hires the world’s best cinematographers, his movies aren’t usually beautiful to look at. This is an exception. Cinematographer Willis (of the Godfather movies) adopts a simple style, using natural light to accent the pastoral beauty of the countryside. Gone too is the Dixieland jazz that Allen usually prefers. Instead, the music is all taken from the work of Felix Mendelssohn and it has a light, joyous passion that invigorates the whole movie.
  3. Allen also breaks out of his usual habits by writing a role for himself that is wildly against type. The autobiographical characters that Allen wrote and played in Annie Hall and Manhattan are tortured artists that hate the country (“It’s filled with creepy, crawly things!”) and dread their fate in a godless universe. Allen here plays a stockbroker and crackpot inventor who loves the country and argues vigorously for the existence of the spirit world. (Of course, he’s still a horndog and a wisecracker.) It’s easy to watch Allen’s 80s films and forget how good both he and Mia Farrow are at what they do, but when they get to play different characters, we are reminded of how talented they really are.
  4. At only 88 minutes, this is an incredibly tightly-written movie, but it sacrifices nothing. With effortless speed, Allen establishes six complex and varied characters and sends each one through a unique journey. Too often, in these “weekend in the country” movies, we never understand who everybody is or what they want from each other. Here, no one is merely defined by their relationship to someone else. Each character gets their own introduction and believably states their own philosophy. Once we understand those philosophies, we easily anticipate the conflicts that will arise, yet each encounter has an unexpected outcome.
Underrated Compared To: Broadway Danny Rose (1984) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), both of which Allen and Farrow made later in the 80s. I like both movies, but not as much as this one.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Zelig (1982) and Purple Rose of Cairo (1984) are Allen’s best remembered films of this period, and they deserve their lofty reputations. Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (1939), Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles on a Summer Night (1955), and Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970), are three of the great “weekend in the country” films that inspired this one.

Availability: It’s on Netflix to “Watch Instantly” right now, and a DVD is in print. Unfortunately, Allen never provides a commentary or any other special features.

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