Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Oh, What The Hell

I made a crack about doing a Top Ten List of Underappreciated Films, and since I'm quite unimaginative these days, let's give it a whirl, shall we?

(Again, this is not a list of the Best Films Ever, just as the previous list was not one of the Worst Films ever. This is a list of films that, for whatever reason, have been ignored or disparaged far beyond their dessert. So if you don't see a film that's taken a whole lot of s*** over the years here, it's probably because it is, in fact, deserving of that extra ration of s***.)

The Top Ten Most Underrated Films of All Time:

10. Heaven's Gate. Of course it had to make this list. To have earned the calumny that got thrown at it for most of the 1980s, this movie would have be twice as awful as Battlefield: Earth, an achievement that Stephen Hawking has proved is impossible under the physical laws of this universe. It's over-long, to be sure, but the cast is top-notch (John Hurt, Sam Waterston really enjoying being evil, Christopher Walken long before he degenerated into self-parody, a baby-faced Jeff Bridges), and there's a whole lot to like about it. Self-indulgent direction doesn't always kill a movie--Chaplin, Welles, Scorsese, Bergman, Fellini et al. were all plenty self-indulgent, and it actually helped their work--and the overall portrait of this aspect of frontier life--the 'pioneering spirit' that this country so prides itself on encouraging in its citizens, and the viciousness of big business that destroyed it make it as relevant today as it ever was. It's a pretty good movie. Though too long, to be sure. But that's its worst sin, and it's not enough to merit the abuse it received.

9. Miller's Crossing. In many ways the best of Coen brothers' films. Yes, I said it. The consistently best dialogue. The best cinematography. The best performances. At the very least, there isn't a single aspect of this movie that doesn't stand up to any of their other films and more than hold its own. But it was a victim of horrible timing--its release coincided with that of the third Godfather film and Goodfellas--and folks were just burnt out on "gangster movies"--which this movie really isn't--it's much more about attempting to walk a tight-rope between brains and loyalty, between desire and commitment, between morality and self-preservation. Plus there are Tommy Guns. So, OK, it is a gangster movie. But it's one of the best ever. And people don't talk about that fact enough. Unfair.

8. Eyes Wide Shut. Given Kubrick's untimely demise prior to its opening and the crushing weight of expectation that consequently landed on the "final work of a master," it would have been damned near impossible for any film to live up to such expectations. Lucas faced a similarly daunting task when he set to work on his new trilogy. But unlike Lucas, Kubrick produced a genuinely fine piece of work here--but it wasn't what anybody was expecting; all the buzz seemed to be about how it was going to focus squarely on Cruise and Kidman going at it left right and sideways, and then it turns out that she's not in much of the film, and they don't even have sex, not really, not that we get to see. And so the backlash machine went into full gear: it was boring, it was stupid, it was a waste of the last great opportunity to see a new Kubrick film--on and on it went. But go back to it, and you might realize something: it's really quite good. No, it's not what you were expecting. And seeing it the first time isn't nearly as much fun as seeing it the second time--unlike other films like Memento and The Usual Suspects, the knowledge of the outcome enhances the film, rather than detracts from it. Cruise's character comes to all the wrong conclusions--and all the same conclusions that we came to. Were we duped? Or did we dupe ourselves? Who knows? Is anything certain? The questions of the movie spiral out of control, and the explanations that come at the end are so neat and facile that we just can't trust them, can we? Does Kidman's rather Epicurean solution to life's uncertanties soothe us? Perhaps. But it can't make them go away. It's a genuinely--in the best sense--disturbing film. No wonder nobody liked it.

7. Spaceballs. An interesting entry: I genuinely don't like this film. Except for the Alien gag with John Hurt in the Diner--that's as close to brilliance as Mel Brooks has come since Young Frankenstein. And yeah, Rick Moranis playing with his action figures is a hoot. But overall, I don't think it's particularly well-conceived, and while Bill Pullman has been good elsewhere, he and Daphe Zuniga are badly miscast and unfunny. So why include it? Because the general reception of the film matched mine, and yet everyone I've ever spoken to about this film really, really likes it. I have to concede, then, that even though I'm not in on the joke, there are enough people who laugh to force me to concede that there's something there. It's never listed among Brooks's best work--and for good reason--yet there are too many smart people out there who like it for me to deny that it's been unjustly neglected.

6. Alien 3. And again, not a movie I'm particularly fond of. And certainly, not what any of us were expecting. I mean, for God's sake, the teaser trailer specifically said that, unlike space, "On Earth, everyone can hear you scream." Which kind of suggested that the movie was gonna take place on, I don't know, Earth??? But no. But the frustration and the disappointment of this film--they're the point; this is a film about those very emotions. The thing is, on its own, it's a cleanly made film--tight plotting, and the dialogue's not bad. It's essentially a rehash of the first movie--single alien, unarmed group of potential victims, dripping industrial setting, etc. But we need to give credit where credit's due: they knew what we wanted, and they did not give it to us. Hicks--the guy we liked so much from that prior movie? Dead. Newt--for God's sake, they killed off a little girl! Ripley's isolation in this movie is so agonizing it's difficult to watch. Everyone she loves or tries to love dies. That alien growing inside her isn't just a parasite--it's a symbol for what she's become: a Jonah--doom to anyone who gets too close. It's a dark, cruel movie, and perhaps the one that takes the loss of death most seriously of the three. It's not particularly scary--that would be the first one--and it's not particularly thrilling--that would be the second. It's not much fun at all. But there's a truth to this movie--a grim sense that, yeah, this is how the story goes--Ripley does not get to live happily ever after. Beowulf kills the dragon, but must die in so doing. Ripley does not get out alive. For the alien--the monstrous manifestation of all that is hostile to man's existence--to end, so must she. She's a carrier, and has to die to kill the disease. Grim. Unpleasant. And oh so very ballsy. This is hands down the bravest sequel ever made, because it gave us nothing that we wanted and dared us to argue that life is fair. For that alone, it needs to be appreciated, revisited, and applauded. But no, you don't have to like it.

5. Zelig. Not so much underrated as ignored, and that's a pity, as it's probably my favorite film of Allen's. He doesn't push the humor, not for an instant, and his beautifully seamless insertion of himself and others into historical footage shows what clumsy, dreadful work was done in that Satanic mess Forrest Gump. But more than that, it's a film that combines the genres of documentary, farce, romantic love, struggle with disease, and half-a-dozen others and produces a movie of genuine poignancy and stunning humor: "I'd never delivered a baby before and I just thought ice-tongs was the way to do it." Unlike most of Allen's other incarnations, Zelig's pathos is genuine, not neurotic, and as a result, he's an enormously sympathetic character--probably the one least like Allen himself (Zelig is sweet, unopinionated, and genuinely self-effacing), and in that respect represents his best work as an actor. This one isn't a heavy-hitter but it's got a weight--a sadness, really, since it's at base the story of an unhappy man who's thrust unwillingly onto the public stage--that his out-and-out comedies lack. It's one that gets overlooked, because, like it's hero, it's a self-effacing movie. And it's one of his best. I'm tempted to go and find a copy of it right now--it's that compulsively watchable.

4. The Tall Guy. Before Richard Curtis starting cranking out mixed bags like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually--movies you can never relax while watching because every time you start to settle in and enjoy them, bam! Andie Macdowell plunges onscreen and wrecks everything and you're so shaken and upset you can't calm down until she's safely gone--he wrote this utter gem of a film starring Jeff Goldblum and a then-unknown Emma Thompson as the most disarmingly wonderful woman in the world--honesty combined with warmth that just floors you every time she opens her mouth and says something completely unexpected and true. Goldblum--apart from his brilliant work in The Fly--is an essentially comic actor, and he's never been better, acting as the straight man to his own life--he keeps getting hit in the face by the miserable existence of being a gangly American actor in London, only to respond endlessly with not-quite-dour wryness and intelligence. The self-loathing seizure he has in the men's room while out on a date with a woman he despises but who he knows will go to bed with him is a marvel. And the evisceration of Andrew Lloyd Weber contained in the rehearsal and performance of Elephant!--a musical based on the life of the Elephant Man, is perfection itself. This is the movie that every gooey dating couple in America should have fallen in love with, long before Hugh Grant's stammering mug hove into view. Go. See it. Now.

3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A toughie. I mean, it's nowhere near as good as the original (almost nothing is.) And yes, Kate Capshaw is possibly the most annoying woman onscreen ever, with the obvious and eternal exception of Tanya Roberts in A View to a Kill, a performance that still gives me the occasional fit of night terrors. And as for Short Round--well, either you like him or you don't. (I don't, largely because it makes it seem as if Indiana Jones couldn't find a sidekick whose employment doesn't violate child-labor laws. For God's sake people, the bullets and blades just fly whenever this guy's around, and he's dragging a kid along with him?!) But in stealing wholesale from Gunga Din, Spielberg and Lucas stole from the best. The mysticism and political complexity of colonial India are used quite well here--it is, after all, in response to the English occupation that the Kali worshippers are able to gain the support of the Raj. And the sheer--if perhaps politically incorrect--evil of the villains (though why should all the bad guys in movies be white? if Thuggee worshippers aren't monstrous embodiments of evil, who is, besides the Nazis, of course?) is terrific. Nobody's ever going to forget seeing that guy's heart removed--not violently, but with eerie delicacy--from his chest. There's a fearlessness to the willingness to show genuinely cruelty here--again, one cannot accuse Spielberg of going soft in this follow-up (he'd do that in the dreadful third film--yeah, yeah, Sean Connery was cute, but the rest of film is an insult to a single firing synapse, much less a thinking adult.) The film has the courage not to be a rehash of the first--it's much more static--no globe hopping here--we're trapped in a hostile kingdom of darkness, and only dethroning the monster on the throne will win us release. Not to mention that Ford's acting in this film makes his acting the first film seem better. This Jones--the Jones of this earlier time--is a colder, more mercenary, more careless individual--a bit too cocky and smug--kind of an a**hole, really--I mean, he's willing to threaten to stab Capshaw in that first scene (would that he had followed through on this promise.) But upon encountering the blighted village, on being informed that, much against his will, he must become the man who returns fertility to the wasteland--he becomes a reluctant Arthurian hero, in search of the Grail, only in the form of the Sankara stone. (Much more potent, his need to find the fertility symbol in this film, compared to that "better get it before that other guy gets it" thing of that final film--man that one sucked.) This film's Jones ends the film a different man than when he started--he's much more sober--much more the man who steps out of the jungle shadows in Raiders. Yes, the monkey brains and the eye-ball soup scene is stupid. But on the flip side, the film shows that the Hindu religion is just as potent as the Judeo-Christian one. There's just way more here than most people give it credit for having. It's by far the number 2 film of the trilogy. By far.

2. The Missouri Breaks. Never heard of it? I'm not suprised. Nobody has. Though I can't understand why. Directed by an American great, Arthur Penn, and starring Marlon Brando (at his most entertainingly loony) and Jack Nicholson (who, sensing that he can't beat Brando at overacting, underplays nicely). A band of low-rent horse thieves--the equivalent of guys who steal hubcaps and car stereos, led by a bemused Nicholson and his lieutenant, played by a wonderful Harry Dean Stanton--are targeted by the local cattle baron for extermination. To carry out this murderous agenda, the baron brings in Brando, a renowned bounty hunter who turns out to be a complete psychopath. The good guys become the bad guys, and the bad guys the good guys, and I think it got overshadowed by the similarly-themed Butch Cassidy--sort of viewed now as the final word on 60s-era anti-heroes whose status as outlaws is part of their appeal and their doom at the hands of coldly impersonal forces of business and history. But Missouri Breaks is more about realizing that law isn't what divides the good from the bad--it's the love of life. It's a witty and hellishly entertaining film that nobody's seen and that more people should. Again I say: Unfair.

1. Plan Nine From Outer Space. I know, I know. It seems almost inevitable that it would be here. Lord knows, I'm not going to attempt to claim that this--the all time king of So-Bad-It's-Hilariously-Good movies--is a genuinely fine film. But Ed Wood has one scene here--just one scene--that actually causes one to stop and think, and realize that that crazy cross-dressing bastard may have been onto something. The climax comes on board the flying saucer, when our square-jawed hero and his vapid girlfriend are told by the aliens just why the latter have been plaguing the earth with zombies--it's to prevent, explains the alien Eros, the development of Solarinite--a matter capable of creating a bomb that explodes sunlight. Silly idea? Wood's got your objection covered: One of the earthlings scoffs that "a particle of sunlight can't even be seen or measured." Eros answers: "Can you see or measure an atom? Yet you can explode one. A ray of sunlight is made up of many atoms." He then goes on to explain why mankind must never be allowed to create this substance--it will mean the destruction of all creation:

Take a can of your gasoline. Say this can of gasoline is the sun. Now, you spread a thin line of it to a ball, representing the earth. Now, the gasoline represents the sunlight, the sun particles. Here we saturate the ball with the gasoline, the sunlight. Then we put a flame to the ball. The flame will speedily travel around the earth, back along the line of gasoline to the can, or the sun itself. It will explode this source and spread to every place that gasoline, our sunlight, touches. Explode the sunlight here, gentlemen, you explode the universe. Explode the sunlight here and a chain reaction will occur direct to the sun itself and to all the planets that sunlight touches, to every planet in the universe. This is why you must be stopped. This is why any means must be used to stop you. In a friendly manner or as (it seems) you want it.

Still a silly idea, you say? Perhaps. But the reaction of our square-jawed hero has the eerie ring of truth to it: "So what if we do develop this Solaranite bomb? We'd be even a stronger nation than now." Small wonder that Eros responds with the famous line: "You see? You see? Your stupid minds. Stupid. Stupid." At which point our square-jawed hero belts him, rather proving Eros's point. If such a device were possible, oh, you'd better believe George W. Bush and the whole Pentagon would be trying like gangbusters to build one. It would be Number One on their to-do list, and the to-do list of everyone on this planet. Bad as the movie is, Wood tells us something profoundly true about human nature--we're competively violent to the point of self-destructiveness. A point that's been made in better films, but which the absurdity of this film renders oddly...perfect. In the middle of a stupid movie about stupid people saying stupid things, Wood makes the brilliantly situated point that mankind is...stupid. And by God if he isn't right. Our stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid! Indeed. And for that--this movie should be appreciated just a bit more--it's not just a bad joke (or a good one, depending on how much you laugh)--it's a dark one, too, one that mocks the species, and rightly so.


Blogger Nance said...

Harry Dean Stanton. I love him in "Stars and Bars", an obscure Daniel Day-Lewis film in which he plays a decaying southern patriarch with such wilful abandon that you feel guilty for enjoying it so much. Do check it out.


2:06 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Yeah, just one problem. The Temple of Doom is a piece of shit. I hate that movie. Are you serious? The original Raiders is one of the 4 or 5 best action adventure films ever made. Both sequels are bad, but I found the third to be enjoyably, cutely crappy, while the second is just stupid and fatuous, populated by annoying secondary players and overblown, mindless mindless action... Isn't it totally devoid of the provocative, semi-realistic heart of Raiders? Spielberg drives me crazy... And Capshaw. As we used to say in fourth or fifth grade... Gag me with a spoon.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Yr. Hmbl. & Obdt. said...

I didn't say "Temple of Doom" was *good*--I said it was under-rated, that it had virtues--which I stand by--that people ignored in their rush to hate it. Hence: you're wrong. And you're *especially* wrong for enjoying *any* aspect of the third movie, which could curdle cream at hundred paces, it's so awful. Capshaw *does* indeed suck--but not much more than the 'love-interest' of the third movie--though she at least has the good grace to die and spare us all any more of her atrocious accent. (Did Karen Allen hold out for too much money, or something...?) The thing about the third movie is that it s***s all over the first--the second one goes its own way. It might be bad, but it's bad on its own terms...

2:51 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Are you sure I'm wrong? Doesn't "under-rated" imply that it's pretty good, despite people thinking it sucks, not that it fucking sucks marginally less than otherwise assumed?? Note that I don't use those little ***'s when I think something is fucking garbage... It's a
-horrible- movie. How 'bout, for under-rated, Kurosawa's "Red-Beard" which is flabbergastingly brilliant and never gets mentioned in the popular press alongside "Seven Samurai" or "Rashomon" or the other Japanese big tickets...

3:25 PM  
Blogger Yr. Hmbl. & Obdt. said...

RED BEARD is an underrated classic, it's true. Actually, I'd almost be willing to swap that in. But for one thing: I continue to be right, and you, in turn, are wrong. Not by any objective, rational standard, of course. But by the standard of "this is my blog and here I am deus dei." As for the use of ****s (why the apostrophe? you know better than that!), I do it for those who A. read my blog at work, and B. it's more in keeping with the Drydenian style of implied obscenity. And I still don't think TEMPLE OF DOOM's horrible--that would be the THIRD movie. However, if it makes you feel any better, it's by far the shakiest of my inclusions here. If there could be shakey inclusions. Which, by virtue of the fact that I am *right*, there cannot. Such is the burden of omniscience.

5:42 PM  
Blogger Screaming Viking said...

Oh c'mon, the prologue with River Phoenix is so damn fun where, in a single afternoon, the mythos of Indiana was born: his first use of a whip (resulting in the chin scar - nice touch), his very rational fear of snakes, and his boy scout heart of gold. You gotta love that. I think Temple of Doom sucks donkey balls, but I think inclusion on the list is fair.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

Yeah, the Viking dude is right about the donkey balls, and J.D.'s omniscience notwithstanding, I really do think part 3 blows less than part 4. That stupid River Phoenix prologue -is- fun.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Yr. Hmbl. & Obdt. said...

Your point regarding Part 3's prologue would be valid but for one important fact: it stars River Pheonix. Who falls squarely into the "good thing *he's* dead" category. Though I'd glad swap him out for Ethan Hawke. And it's *not* fun; it's *stupid*--that's the thing about the first movie--it didn't have to be stupid in order to be fun. The second movie compromised on this point a bit, and the third completely let go and went into full moron mode. No, no soup for either of you. Bad movie.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

I meant two and three, not three and four. Other than that I stick by it. Like the soup line though...

7:27 PM  
Blogger Screaming Viking said...

I'd like donkey-ball soup please.

12:05 PM  

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