Monday, August 14, 2006

Five Great Movies You May Not Have Seen…But Should

In the summertime, when the weather is hot
You can see a bunch of crap, or maybe not.

Have you become increasingly bored with what’s playing at your local cinema? Or maybe you’re dissatisfied with the New Release shelf at the video store? A Netflix subscription with an empty queue perhaps? With that in mind, here’s a subjective list of Five Great Movies You May Not Have Seen…But Should (in order of release, not greatness) – and they’re all available on DVD.

The Beguiled (1971) ‘71 was quite a year for Clint Eastwood. Play Misty for Me, his directorial debut, hit screens in November and a month later Harry Callaghan was unleashed for the first time. But that year also saw the release of one of the most unusual and lesser known flicks in Clint’s long career.

The Beguiled, set during the Civil War, introduces Corporal John McBurney (Eastwood), a wounded Union soldier who happens upon an all-girls school in the South headed by Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page). She decides rather than turn him over to Confederate forces, to take him in under the guise of recuperation.

One thing Farnsworth doesn’t count on is McBurney being as horny for female flesh as every woman & girl in the school is for the attentions of a man. It doesn’t take long for the recovering Corporal to make a series of escalating wrong moves and suddenly he’s not so coveted anymore. As despicable an anti-hero as Clint plays, you’ll eventually root for him over Page’s nasty bitch of a headmistress.

The Beguiled offers some truly bizarre, dream-like imagery and subtly intricate themes – including an incest angle – and its gobsmacking finale owes more to Edgar Allan Poe than Sergio Leone.

Fingers (1978) Of the films listed here, Fingers may be the only one that is not truly “great”, and yet this early performance by Harvey Keitel elevates it above and beyond the printed screenplay and solidified his ability to carry a film as a leading man.

He plays Jimmy Fingers, a man veering back and forth between two very different lives: an aspiring concert pianist and a thuggish collector of monies due for his ailing, faded mob boss father. Jimmy’s love of music emanates from respect for his deceased mother who also tickled the ivories; his mob ties, which he desperately desires to leave behind, exist only to honor his deluded father’s fantasy that he remains a force with which to be reckoned. Unfortunately for Jimmy, he makes a better Soprano than a Liberace.

Years before Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant and that other Piano movie, Keitel channeled themes and imagery from those future projects into Fingers. Great moments include a dual seduction/rape of a young Tanya Roberts, the pistol whipping of a pizzeria owner set to “Angel of the Morning”, and a proctology exam that manages yet another spin on the film’s title.

Speaking of The Sopranos, keep an eye out for a youngish Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts) as well as Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior) as a piano mentor. By the way…a fun movie game called “Spot the Soprano” can be built around viewing mob flicks – just pick anything from The Godfather to the present.

Withnail & I (1987) Another movie game revolves around viewing this little gem. Dose on the poison of your choice every time a character onscreen imbibes. There’s a good chance you’ll pass out before the end credits roll. (This game is not recommended for first time viewers.)

Probably the most profound line ever written in regard to Withnail & I describes it as being "as deep as you want it to be or as shallow as you need it to be”. I don’t know who wrote that, but I cannot discuss the film without mentioning it.

Set in the final days of 1969, Withnail traces the antics of two out of work actors living in a filth-laden flat in London. To “escape all this hideousness”, they spend their time in booze and drug-addled hazes. With wits at an end, they head to the countryside for a weekend - never minding that they’re utterly ill equipped to deal with rural living. Aside from a surprise visit from Withnail’s Uncle Monty in the third act, those are the film’s major plot points.

In lieu of an actual plot, Withnail & I offers two stellar leads, the most infinitely quotable dialogue this side of The Big Lebowski, and a situation to which anyone who’s ever been in an insufferable friendship can relate. Richard E. Grant plays Withnail with a ferocious pomposity and Paul McGann breathes life into Marwood (the “I” of the title) as only the yin to Withnail’s yang could be played: quiet, reserved, thoughtful…and ready to explode in the possible moment where Withnail finally pushes him too far.

The film is simply one of the funniest, most perfect comedies ever made. In a time when Wedding Crashers is viewed by the masses as a comedic milestone, Withnail & I is a necessity. And it was executive produced by George Harrison…now go forward and “never attempt anything without the gloves”.

One True Thing (1998) Certainly Meryl Streep is one of the few actresses talented enough to play a woman dying of cancer and still manage to convince that she’s stronger in spirit and attitude than a healthy person could ever hope to be. Carl Franklin, a black man, directs One True Thing. Specific note of his race and sex was made only to illustrate that this may not be the chick flick it appears to be, or fare that can only be understood by the Middle Class white folk who inhabit the story. It isn’t even about a woman dying of cancer. What One True Thing is about, however, is the way we view the people closest to us, and how sometimes who we believe they are aren’t who they are at all.

Ellen Gulden (Renee Zellweger), a ruthless New York journalist, returns home for the holidays and learns her mother Kate (Streep) - whom she regards as a silly traditionalist – is dying. At the request of her writer/professor father George (William Hurt) – whom she blindly adores – Ellen begrudgingly agrees to stay and help care for Kate. George is too “busy” at the college and insists that Ellen put her burgeoning career on hold for the sake of the family. Over time, she learns her mother is not the naïve, vapid woman she’d always assumed, nor is her father the pillar of greatness that she’d always credited him.

Material that could fall under a “Movie of the Week” banner is elevated by an emotionally complex storyline and three incredible performances. Hurt delivers the unexpected, mostly because we’ve come to anticipate his deadpan delivery, but here it morphs into something fresh. Zellweger (post-Jerry Maguire, but pre-Bridget Jones) knocks it out of the ballpark as the film’s center, which is no mean feat when acting opposite a cancer-stricken Streep. And Meryl? Well, need her talents be sold to anyone?

Ravenous (1999) I’ve always wanted to meet the Fox exec who greenlit Ravenous - a period black comedy-horror-western about cannibalism, in which the main character, Capt. John Boyd (Guy Pearce), utters barely a word for the first 20 minutes. Something tells me this person no longer works at Fox…which is a shame, because Ravenous is the sort of risky fare studios fail to produce these days. Come to think of it, Ravenous was an anomaly back in ’99, too.

In the midst of the Mexican-American War, Boyd, having been branded a coward, is sent to Fort Spencer in the remote Sierra Nevadas, where quite literally nothing ever happens. That trend is bucked by the arrival of the mysterious Mr. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle). Starving and near death, he tells a tale of survival involving Col. Ives – a member of his party who resorted to cannibalizing the rest of the expedition when the food ran out. Knowing much more about the film would spoil its manic twists and turns.

Ravenous is thematically a vampire movie in disguise, and its story echoes Louis and Lestat’s in Interview with the Vampire, only this is arguably a better film. One exceptional aspect is the collaborative score by composer Michael Nyman and indie pop maestro Damon Albarn (of Blur & Gorillaz fame - he even has a commentary track on the DVD!) It’s quirky yet majestic orchestral music that accentuates not only the western setting, but also the film’s wry sense of humor. The film is obviously not for all tastes, but if you’ve read this far and your interest is still piqued, it’s unlikely to disappoint.