Five more films that get no love

December 10, 2008

FROM JASON’S BARGAIN DVD BIN — I let loose a little back in June about five movies that are completely underrated, and I’ve been thinking about a few more. They’re not Goodfellas or Shawshank, but they’re fine films that just don’t get the respect and attention they deserve.

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story — I’m a sucker for biopics, and after watching this 1993 tale seven times I can comfortably say it’s deserving of some praise. Jason Scott Lee is great as the charismatic Hong Kong martial artist who is more or less responsible for breaking a cultural taboo and teaching kung fu in the US. He falls in love with a young American girl played by Jim Carrey’s ex-wife, Lauren Holly (rawr), gets a spot as Kato on The Green Hornet, gets ditched from the lead in Kung Fu, and returns to Hong Kong to make his now-classic films.

The only problem I have with Dragon is that its writers resort to mysticism. They revel in it. Lee’s death is foreshadowed as a demonic manifestation intent on hunting him down in dream sequences. The movie almost comes out and says this Chinese demon is some sort of magical religious punishment for the way he lived.

The Thomas Crown Affair — John McTiernan’s 1999 remake makes a hero of a very clever villain. Pierce Brosnan’s title character masterminds art heists that are — as you discover int he final reel — so much more. This is an intelligent over oversexed cops-and-robbers-and-bounty-hunters story that absolutely makes you want to buy a boller hat, or at least some high-class knock-off art.

The jazzy soundtrack comes courtesy of Sting, Nina Simone, and Bill Conti (think Rocky‘s “Gonna Fly Now”). The art is Monet, Pissarro, and Magritte. But the best acting of the flick, surprisingly, isn’t the work of Brosnan or Rene Russo; see Crown for Denis Leary’s loveable loser cop.

Sneakers — Four years before the remake of Mission Impossible, Field of Dreams director Phil Alden Robinson took his own shot at the team-of-spies genre. How’s this for a cast: Robert Redford, River Phoenix, Ben Kingsley, Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones, and Dan Aykroyd?

This adventure-buddy-comedy is laced with all the early 90s “hacker” tripe, as Redford’s team of super-smart con artists help corporations discover and fix their electronic security problems. A hunt for a code-breaking “black box” lands the gang in trouble with the NSA, CIA, and dirty, dirty Russians, and that’s where the fun begins.

Maverick — Once upon a time in the old west, there was an actor who really had chops and totally didn’t come off as hating Jews. He made a bunch of really great films, including Maverick, and then went certifiably insane/drunk/racist.

His name was Mel Gibson. Everybody loved him, and I loved all his movies. Things have changed a lot since 1994.

Richard Donner managed to clothe this old TV remake in equal parts Gunsmoke, Blazing Saddles, and The Sting. Still, with Jodie Foster, James Garner, Graham Greene, and Alfred Molina chipping in, this wildly wacky western comes off fresh and is filled with fake-outs and twists.

Meet Joe Black — Facing his 65th birthday, a strange whispering voice in his head, and his own mortality, Anthony Hopkins spends his last days on Earth hosting an unlikely and barely corporeal visitor.

Based on “Death Takes a Holiday,” this film puts the anthropomorphized soul of death itself into the body of Brad Pitt. Death, you see, wants to walk among men a while and see what life is all about. He chooses Hopkins’ successful business mogul to show him around, and incidentally falls in love along the way with Hopkins’ daughter (Claire Forlani — who wouldn’t).

This movie is long. It is slow. It is wonderfully, perfectly plodding. You could say it marches at the pace of death. And I love it. I love the use of light, the utter luxury we’re shown, the complicated but honest characters, the love story. I love how at one point Pitt is playing Death playing a human masquerading as another person. That’s acting as someone acting as someone else — and it all comes through expertly. There’s a reason he gets the big bucks (and Angelina Jolie).

If you don’t cry at the end of this film, we can’t be friends. And if you don’t laugh at it’s one blackly (get it?) comedic moment, then you are dead to me.

Music Monday: Nada Surf and The Statler Brothers

March 17, 2008

1. Nada Surf — Popular

These were the days of flannel and backward baseball caps. I remember how huge Popular was in 1996 in New York state — mostly because the band had a huge teen following downstate. When the video hit MTV, Nada Surf suddenly became the ironic icon of misplaced teen priorities, showing how delusional most pop culture depictions of high school were.

The first few times I actually listened to the lyrics, I was stumped. Was Matt Caws being serious? It didn’t take long to catch on to the vitriol as his spoken rant escalated into full, hateful ablution. I was dating my first real girlfriend at the time and I remember that this song triggered my first doubts that high school love was real.

Also, that slutty cheerleader was really hot by 1996 standards.

2. The Statler Brothers — Flowers on the Wall

I spent some of my earliest years hanging around my grandparents’ farm in the hills of western Pennsylvania, a state where Flowers on the Wall might as well be the official anthem of depressed cultural solitude. That was the 1980s, but even today that part of the state seems to be permanently stuck in a sepia-toned shadow of the 1960s, when The Statler Brothers’ tune hit the radio waves.

There’s that famous refrain: “Playin’ Solitaire ’till dawn with a deck of 51/Smokin’ cigarettes and watchin’ Captain Kangaroo/Now don’t tell me I’ve got nothin’ better to do.” It’s ostensibly about a man who’s left direction-less after a break-up. But I think it perfectly describes the tired mindset of the backwoods Pennsylvania coal miners who watched industry and progress fall away in the 1970s.

That kind of disenchantment was lost on me at age 4 when the song would play on my grandfather’s pick-up truck radio. But it really hit home in the context of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack in 1995 — especially next to other 60s and 70s slacker songs. Quentin Tarantino’s track list was brilliant and I think my dream job would be choosing songs for his films.