May 25, 2011 Mostly Film Recommends – Obscure Gems
Welcome to the first in an occasional series, in which we will collect lovely little bundles of themed recommendations from Mostly Film contributors. To kick the series off, we asked them to recommend a film that they were pretty sure none of the rest of us had ever seen (as it went, few managed to get that obscure).
“Larger than Life” by CaulorLime
Asked to write about an obscure gem it would have been easy to write about Satyajit Ray’s Big City or something old, silent and Japanese. Easy, and wrong. Anyone can explain the appeal of a lost classic, but a failed studio comedy from 1996? That’ll take some energetic shilling.
Larger than Life is, essentially, the same story as Rain Man. A cynical, materialistic character learns that his father has died but that to collect his inheritance he has to undertake a road trip accompanied by a beloved associate of his dead dad. The travelling companion is difficult to control, but during the trials he endures alongside him, the protagonist learns to be a better man. Except instead of Tom Cruise, you get Bill Murray; and instead of an autistic savant, you get an elephant. In what way is that not instantly superior?
Most films, classic or otherwise, would be improved by the addition of an elephant. How much more enjoyable would Citizen Kane be if Rosebud turned out to be his boyhood elephant? What a delight would it be to hear Clemenza turn to a young Michael Corleone and say “Luca Brasi sleeps with the elephants”? But I digress.
Larger than Life is far from perfect. The studio thought they were making a knockabout comedy, and so did most of the lacklustre supporting cast, but no-one saw fit to tell Murray, who exasperatedly Venkmans his way around the script, and has fun with it, in a lugubrious fashion. There are some great lines, and a few brilliant set ups – at one point, Murray assumes the well-worn disguise of the hot female hitchhiker, with the elephant hiding behind a tree as the boyfriend; in another he is asked by a trucker if the elephant is afraid of mice, ‘Why?’ he replies, ‘Are you hauling mice?’ – and there’s a surprisingly affecting, if predictable ending. The real joy, though, is that it opens up a world of possibilities, where Tom Cruise movies are remade with a Ghostbuster and an animal. Imagine Top Gun with Dan Aykroyd and an actual goose. Go on, just imagine it.
“Rustler’s Rhapsody” by Mr Moth
Bearing in mind that I haven’t seen Rustler’s Rhapsody in nigh-on 20 years, it’s not so much a film for me now as a refined series of in-jokes between me and my brother. ‘The root’s kicking in’, ‘I’ll have a whisky with a human hair in it’, ‘Run along, kids, and don’t forget to listen to your teachers!’, ‘Confident… heterosexual?’, ‘He’s standing in the saddle!’ … lines which, in all probability, don’t actually appear in the film in the form we use them.
Eighties Man Tom Berenger plays Rex O’Herlihan (“The Singing Cowboy”), battling not only an Evil Cattle Baron but also his own uncertainty as a cowboy of the old school flung into a modern Western, a whiter-than-white good guy in a world of moral greys. He drinks milk (unless he’s in a tough bar, in which case he has to order the aforementioned whisky with a human hair in it), only ever shoots the guns out of people’s hands and is perfectly chaste and honourable in his dealings with ladies – even when those ladies are less than chaste themselves. In the end, when confronted with another Good Guy, Rex has to decide whether to stick to his guns – so to speak – or accept this new moral landscape and adopt the new ways in order to win.
But the plot is a sideshow. It’s a fish out of water comedy Western, but far, far less slapdash and slipshod than its inevitable comparison point, Blazing Saddles. The jokes are funnier, for a start, and cuter, and come at a less frantic pace. The plot, such as it is, ties up. Someone cared about this, someone with affection for the old Westerns, someone who wanted to say a fond farewell to a more innocent genre. And, most importantly, to have a damn good laugh while they said it.
“The Frog Prince” by veal
I don’t know if they got it right. I haven’t seen the film since losing my virginity, and that’s what it’s about: waiting for the right boy to give it up to. Our heroine, Jenny, gives her French beau (the titular grenouille) a fairy tale task to make sure he’s worthy of her – learn a single speech from “Romeo and Juliet”. And he won’t. Jenny is wonkily, Englishly pretty, not really hot stuff, and Jean-Phillipe a definite dix to any teenage girl, so maybe it’s just that, economic awareness, that leads him to declare the idea stupid, when most English boys would probably have taken a stab at memorising the complete works if it got them certain sex. It’s 1961, by the way. Jenny’s best friend, Ros, is easy, but she’s posh, which makes her anything but.
The Frog Prince was shown in British cinemas (and then on my Betamax) in 1985. John Hughes had only just begun his run of perfect high school movies. The Frog Prince doesn’t have Hughes’s cool or his clever jokes, but pulls off a similar feel of fear and menace, something a lot of teen romances lack now, with their role-model heroines. That was my teenage experience: being worried.
In a breathless Métro climax that Crocodile Dundee would pinch and gut the following year, we find out Jean-Phillipe had known his Shakespeare all the time. He just didn’t want to be tested, because he is the right boy. Jenny should have known. But still, I like her style: setting an entrance exam.
“Dandelion” by Ron Swanson
Mark Milgard’s Dandelion was a film very much of its time. That seems strange because it’s only seven years old. It felt like a part of what could have been a new wave of American indie films, directly influenced by the visual palette and leisurely pacing of the great Terrence Malick. As such, it feels similar to Jacob Aaron Estes’ Mean Creek or the early films of David Gordon Green – George Washington and All the Real Girls. Milgard used Green’s cinematographer Tim Orr to shoot his debut feature.
Orr’s work is typically superb, and while it may look and sound like Malick, particularly given the lingering shots of rural Idaho, the film actually has a lot in common with Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, only without the sub-David Lynch fantasy elements. It has the same themes – self-sacrifice, determinism and the frustration of young love, and the characters feel as if they’re on a similarly doomed path.
The lovelorn lead, here, is played by Vincent Kartheiser (“Mad Men”). In order to save someone else, he takes the blame for something he hasn’t done and that choice has a disastrous impact on those he cares for, particularly his new girlfriend – a terrific Taryn Manning. It doesn’t quite stack up to the films I’ve compared it to, but Dandelion is a really impressive debut. What it wasn’t, though, was part of any movement. Both Estes and Milgard are yet to make another movie, while David Gordon Green is currently working on a dick joke-per minute clause in his contract with Danny McBride.
Dandelion never received a cinematic release in the UK, and nor is it available to buy or rent on UK DVD – although you can get it cheaply on region 1 import from Amazon.com. For such a low price, and with the quality of the performances from the two young leads and Arliss Howard and Mare Winningham in support, I’d highly recommend it.
“The Claim” by Ambrose Chapel
A terrific cast including Nastassja Kinski, Milla Jovovich, Peter Mullan, Sarah Polley, indie darling Shirley Henderson and Wes Bentley (hot off American Beauty); a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce from a Thomas Hardy classic; breathtaking scenery; a soundtrack by Michael Nyman; romance, action, tragedy and untold riches. So why haven’t you seen The Claim?
It’s a horribly predictable Hollywood story of conflict between director, producers and studio. Michael Winterbottom’s first and last foray into big-budget mainstream film had him scrapping whole towns worth of sets, moving countries, and fighting frostbite, funding setbacks and United Artists, who tried to get him to cast Madonna and dumped the film with little promotion when they couldn’t get their way. He couldn’t even have the title he wanted, because Kingdom Come was snatched from him by a forgettable Fox comedy starring L L Cool J. The film’s production and Winterbottom’s struggles were chronicled on a frank behind-the-scenes website, something almost unheard-of at the time. Click here to help Michael pick a new name for the film!
The heart of Hardy’s tragedy “The Mayor of Casterbridge” is unchanged, although it’s been transposed to the Yukon gold rush of the 1890s. Daniel Dillon is literally master of all he surveys, the millionaire owner and lawmaker of an entire Deadwood-style frontier town, until his past catches up with him. Two people he hasn’t seen for twenty years get off the stagecoach one day — his wife and child. Don’t worry, it’s not that he abandoned them. He sold them…
Who knows what would have happened if Winterbottom had embraced, or been embraced by, the big studios. He’s shot fast, light and cheap ever since. So The Claim remains an oddity, but an intriguing, challenging, surprising film and I promise you its images will stick in your mind.
Oh, and Milla Jovovich sings. Wonderfully. In Portuguese.
“Beeswax” by Indy Datta
Andrew Bujalski’s third film, his best, feels as if it could have been beamed in from a parallel movie universe, so distant is it from the world of marketing-driven big budget Hollywood, or the abstruse aesthetic strategies of the international festival film, or (the “mumblecore” albatross aside, which I only bring up so I can ask you to ignore it) the horde of quirky American microbudget indies unleashed by the digital revolution. Painstakingly written to appear unwritten, shot on old fashioned 16mm celluloid and edited by Bujalski on a flatbed he keeps in his house, and so low-concept it’s virtually no-concept (Bujalski has variously described it as a movie about a phantom lawsuit, and as a legal thriller without thrills – which gives you some idea of how eventful it is), its handcrafted charm is only part of its appeal.
Beeswax is a character study of identical twin sisters. Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) is the co-owner of a vintage fashion boutique, although her relationship with her business partner is on the verge of breaking down. Lauren (Maggie Hatcher (!)) is drifting through life; doing odd jobs for her mother’s girlfriend, getting baked with a childhood neighbour, avoiding anything that looks like commitment. One other thing differentiates them: Jeannie is a paraplegic wheelchair user (‘same face, different bodies’). Bujalski uses their relationship, and the contrasts between them as the starting point for a gently probing examination of the ways people choose to or are made to grow up. Beeswax is also about the great missing subject of the American cinema – work, and what it means to us. And like all Bujalski’s films, it has a brilliantly abrupt ending.
The Western didn’t die; it just ran out of places to run. Then along came the road movie, which was dedicated to the idea that there was never anywhere to run in the first place. Most of Eldorado happens in the front seat of a 1979 Chevy, but with its lowering skies, endless flat landscapes and twangy soundtrack, it’s one of the few films I know to explicitly and successfully fuse the genres. On top of that, it was made in Belgium by a Walloon.
If, like me, you find the idea of a Belgian road movie both innately and inexplicably cheering, Eldorado takes your initial goodwill and repays it in scenes of both broad and quiet comedy. Vintage car salesman Yvan (writer/director Bouli Lanners) returns from work to find himself being menaced by a junkie called Elie – if you can call being shouted at from under a bed menacing. After a bumbling scuffle that ends with Yvan victorious and yet somehow still obliged to give Elie coffee, Yvan allows himself to be talked into driving his intruder (Fabrice Adde) home: a few hundred miles to the French border.
Misadventures ensue – the straightforwardly funny, the silly and surreal, and the weirdly chilling – but a base note of gentleness and fellow-feeling has been established between the two leads that makes Eldorado both more funny and sadder than any single thing that happens in it. When Yvan and Elie reach the end of the road, you realise that it’s always been in sight, but all travellers know that often the view is better for the ride.
“Incident at Loch Ness” by Uncle Frank
Before the crossover success of Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Grizzly Man, I was introduced to the idea of Werner Herzog as a documentarian by Zack Penn’s Incident at Loch Ness.
Much of Penn’s CV is made up of scripting adaptations of Marvel comics, but if this would seem to place him in the “reliable hack” category, this film – which he wrote, directed and also stars in as himself – suggests he could be rather more. It initially purports to follow Herzog’s attempt to film a study of the Loch Ness monster and those who believe in her; focusing on what he calls ‘the difference between fact and truth’, and it features characteristic Herzog musings and interviews with the sort of eccentrics who often pop up in his documentaries. However, it soon becomes clear that we are watching a Spinal Tap style mockumentary in which Herzog’s ambitions are constantly stymied by Penn’s scheming to make a more commercial film – which include hiring model Kitana Baker to play an unlikely sonar operator, and creating obvious fake monster shots. The film plays on the colourful legends of Herzog’s directing career – at one point, the bickering escalates to the point where a furious Penn threatens Herzog with a flare gun, just as the latter reportedly directed Klaus Kinski at gunpoint. (“That’s just a myth,” Herzog replies wearily.)
Better still, the film shifts tone again in the final third. With the film crew trapped in the middle of the loch, we move into Blair Witch Project territory, as something large appears on the sonar and begins to attack.
I was lucky; when I saw Incident at Loch Ness at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2004, I had no prior knowledge of its content. I left the cinema ready to rave about it to anyone who would listen; sadly, it never received a UK cinema release. It’s available on Region 1 DVD, and there are clips on YouTube (including some of the DVD commentary, with Herzog and Penn still in character). The very fact that you’ve read this piece means you can’t have the same experience as I did, but you can still enjoy the blend of film business satire and horror, and Herzog’s fine performance as himself.
Not that long ago a former intimate of country singer Waylon Jennings gave me a fairly graphic account of Jennings’ death. The official record states the cause as diabetes, but according to the story as I heard it, Jennings – at the time of his death one of the most popular singers in the USA – first lost a leg due to complications from the diabetes, then contracted gangrene in the stump. This poison eventually made its way to his brain. So his death could justifiably have been described as mediaeval, if diabetes existed in the Middle Ages. They certainly had gangrene.
The awful manner of Jennings’ death isn’t in any way unique – to be a country singer in late twentieth century America pretty much meant for most practitioners of the craft a long, drink-sodden apprenticeship, then a sudden burst of fame and fortune, followed by a prescription-drug-fuelled decline whose duration was dictated by the money you’d managed to save and the carers you could afford.
Which brings me to the film you haven’t seen, or I assume you haven’t seen, Payday, starring the great lost American leading man, Rip Torn, and written by lowlife chronicler, friend of Richard Brautigan and Shel Silverstein, and (director Daryl Duke’s economical direction notwithstanding) the true auteur of this piece, Don Carpenter.
Carpenter’s fiction chronicled the same axis as latterday Bukowski – blue-collar to Hollywood. I don’t know much about him – the timescale dictated for this piece prevented me from immersing myself in his fiction, financial considerations barred me from bidding for the autographed screenplay for “Post Office” I found being hawked online (of course, its of a piece with Carpenter’s maudit career that the autograph is that of the source novel’s author – Bukowski).
Payday, a film which I have left myself with far too little space to write about, is the story of a working country singer on the verge of national success, played by Rip Torn with an assurance that suggests he knows a little too much about the moral void presented to the man of some limited fame who works among the kind of people whose choices are limited to military service, industrial agriculture or impotent rage. As he travels through sub-smalltown America playing shows, taking drugs, fucking indiscriminately and largely getting away with whatever he wants, his fixed Rip Torn grin slowly etches its way through his skin until, as sometimes happened with his erstwhile doppelganger Nicholson, charisma becomes a death’s head.
The final moments rival Two-Lane Blacktop in their refusal of drama. The leading character runs until he runs out of steam, then slowly grinds to a halt. Somewhere offscreen, two or three hundred miles to the east or west, another man with a guitar moves towards the microphone. You take the DVD out of the machine feeling something has been said about what it is to make music in an industrial culture. Of course, nobody really noticed, but that’s probably not the point.
“La Moustache” by Matthew Turner
La Moustache played at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2005 but like so many great foreign films that play at festivals (see also: The Ring Finger), it was tragically denied a theatrical release. Vincent Lindon plays a man who has worn a moustache for the last 15 years. The film opens with him shaving in the bath and he casually asks his wife (Emmanuelle Devos) how she would feel if he shaved it off. She tells him not to, that she’s grown used to it, but he shaves it off anyway. However, his wife doesn’t notice. They go out to dinner and their friends don’t notice either. Neither do his work colleagues the next day. He becomes angry, because he thinks his wife has told his friends not to say anything, but when he confronts her she says, ‘What are you talking about? You’ve never had a moustache.’ From that bizarre, intriguing premise, the film gets stranger and stranger and you’re never quite sure what exactly is going on, so you’re completely hooked right up until the brilliant ending. To that end, director Emmanuel Carrère does an excellent job in balancing several different tones and ideas (suspense, black comedy, existential mystery, domestic drama, study in insanity) and making each of them work simultaneously without forcing the film to commit to a particular genre. It’s perfectly cast, too – Vincent Lindon is terrific, with his hangdog expression and strangely sad eyes – he underplays it and it works brilliantly. Devos (who is also kind of strange-looking) is equally good but it’s really Lindon’s movie. There’s a definite cult appeal to this film and it deserves a much wider audience. It is particularly recommended if you have ever either grown a moustache or have had to live with one.
“Smile” by Philip Concannon
Despite being responsible for some of the smartest films of the 1970′s, Michael Ritchie now appears to be something of a forgotten figure from that great decade of American cinema. His best film is Smile, a 1975 satire that had the misfortune to be released in the same year as Robert Altman’s Nashville (another multi-character drama that skewered the American Dream) but don’t dismiss this picture just because it has been painted on a smaller canvas. As he goes behind the scenes of the “Young American Miss” beauty pageant, Ritchie deftly lampoons his characters without resorting to caricature, and he gradually reveals the hollow disillusionment that exists behind the glitter and the permanently fixed grins. The girls (including a young Melanie Griffith and Annette O’Toole) are alternately competitive and nervous, while the adults organising the event (led by the outstanding Bruce Dern and Michael Kidd) are a bunch of neurotics barely holding it together. Only the local teenage boys seem to know exactly what they want and how to get it, poised outside the girls’ dressing room with a Polaroid camera, with orders already piling up for shots of the contenders in various states of undress. It could be argued that the film is too genial to really stick the satirical knife in, but I think Ritchie and screenwriter Jerry Belson find the perfect tone throughout, blending scenes of comedy and pain in a nuanced fashion, and ensuring we retain a genuine sense of compassion for these characters as their smiles begin to fade.