Back in 1986, the seminal Los Angeles punk band X released a film named “The Unheard Music” (great movie. Find it. Watch it. Love it.) which was seen by absolutely nobody when it was originally released. I recall the theater was empty except for me and three people behind me, who I am fairly certain were homeless folks just looking to get out of the rain. If you like the band, you’ll like the movie. But that is not the point of the most recent installment of my musings on film, written late at night while I hang out with my Terrier, Jack. The point is that there are far too many movies that are criminally overlooked by most people. I don’t think my taste is any better or worse than anyone else, I’ve just had the benefit of seeing more movies than most people. Trust me, that is not one of life’s bigger problems. It’s similar to being too pretty, something I will never be accused of, by-the-way.
Back before the Earth cooled, before the dinosaurs roamed, there were these buildings full of movies. They were called video stores. Like record stores and used book stores, they were places to get lost in and discover treasure. An album with an interesting cover, a book with a great title, a video with eye-catching packaging; all of them would call out to be found. I’m approaching my “you dang kids, get off my lawn” years, so I may be sentimental. But the ability to discover a previously unknown gem is still possible. In many ways it is easier. The internet has plenty of uses beyond Tweets and laughing at Wikipedia entries that are clearly wrong. You can search out great art, music, books and films. Or, you just find some solid, brainless fun.
So plug in your Roku, Apple TV, queue up the Netflix or Amazon Prime account and search these movies out. All twelve are worth your time. Or feel free to look around for yourselves, find anything you have not seen and give it a look. Trust me, the Jennifer Aniston rom-com will still be there tomorrow. Hell, those things will probably outlast the Twinkies and cockroaches after the apocalypse.
The Long Good Friday (1980)
I caught this movie on a trip to Hawaii to visit my brother. He met me at the airport, and the humidity was insane — it was like being greeted by Satan with a flamethrower — and he had to work. So, while killing time until he got off, I wandered down to the video store on the corner and remembered my old room mate Neil, the incredibly talented musician that all the girls loved,
raving about how good it was. So, I grabbed it and a bag of Lays Potato Chips and a two liter of Coke and headed back to my brother’s apartment.
That was when I became endlessly impressed with Bob Hoskins. Up until that point, I was familiar with his work, but I did not like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Truth be told, I was annoyed by Charles Fleischer (disliked him since I first saw him on Welcome Back, Kotter), and the script was horrid, in my opinion.
Hoskins is Harold Shand, a seedy mobster putting together a plan to buy the docklands with a group of Americans as financial backers. With “The Long Good Friday”, you get the first on-screen appearance of Pierce Brosnan. There is also the jarring image of a mobster on meat hooks, an IRA sub-plot, a star-making role for Hoskins and plenty of stuff blowing up. There’s also Helen Mirren. Everything is better with Helen Mirren. The Americans give Shand 24 hours to clean up the mess or the deal is off. Good Friday turns out to be a very bad day for Shand in this classic mobster film.
There are three types of people in this world: People who have seen and love “Krull”, people who have not yet seen “Krull” and need to do so immediately, and people who have seen “Krull” and did not enjoy the film. We need to pray for that third group of people. Clearly, their heads have been corrupted by demons. From the opening wedding of destruction (that predates Game of Thrones’ “Red Wedding” by decades) to the epic finale, “Krull” is the best friggin’ fantasy/sci-fi/love story/movie about a guy that can turn himself into a basset hound. Ever. “Krull” scores points for entertainment, adventure and being the most krulltastic (yes, I made up a word, deal with it) movie ever made.
Hard as it is to believe, there are evil people in this world that don’t love “Krull”. These people are part of a communist plot to overthrow cinema and need to be rooted out like the vipers they are. I have seen Truffaut’s “400 Blows”, and I have an unholy love of the Godfather and “It’s A Wonderful Life”. I’ve been a film critic for decades and I apologize to no one for my love of “Krull”.
Equal parts sci-fi, fantasy, love story and battle of good versus evil, “Krull” was released in the early 1980s, not a good time for special effects. Sure, watching the fire mares fly through the sky, hoofs ablaze, is almost comical. Certainly, the weapon, the Glaive, is sort of a glorified boomerang. But there is a Cyclops. There’s also a prince being denied his crown while he attempts to liberate his princess bride being held captive by this hideous evil entity.
Mix in a young Liam Neeson in a bit part with the uncommonly beautiful Lysette Anthony and our hero Ken Marshall and you have the ingredients of genius. To put it simply, if you don’t like “Krull”, you are using oxygen that other people can put to better use.
The Station Agent (2003)
“The Station Agent” is about a quiet little man who loves trains and feels very wary of people. Peter Dinklage pulls off the role Tyrion Lannister, a guy that inherits an old train station when his only friend, the owner of the model train store Lannister visits, dies abruptly. He moves in, leaving his comfort zone behind and encounters a diverse, if troubled, group of people.
Director Tom McCarthy gets great, subtle performances out of some very good actors. Bobby Cannavale is Joe, the talkative food truck owner who befriends Lannister, mostly against his will. Michelle WIlliams is adorable as usual as Emily, the librarian and Patricia Clarkson is Olivia, the local divorced artist with more baggage than the rest of the town combined. There are moments of quiet drama, sweet moments of Lannister coming out of his shell to begin to enjoy the company of others and naturally, the third act conflict when everything falls apart. It’s a straightforward story that is well-acted and made by professionals. Not the most earth-shattering film ever, but worthy of viewing and more enjoyable than most.
Pirate Radio (2009)
If you’re looking for an ensemble comedy where the key attraction is rebel deejays off the coast of England, blaring rock’n’roll to the masses, “Pirate Radio” is for you. Semi-fact based and enjoyable from start to finish, Kenneth Branagh is Sir Alistair Dormandy, the button down, humorless government official out to close down the ships in the North Sea, blasting 50,000 watts of power at the British Empire to no avail. Bill Nighy is Quentin, the ship’s de facto program director who tries to maintain standards while entertaining his nephew Tom Sturridge as Young Carl. There’s plenty of great personalities throughout, Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke, who is delightfully moronic), The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the bombastic American perfectly) and Rhys Ifans as the womanizing/greatest DeeJay in all of Britain Gavin. Dormandy has an assistant with the unfortunate name of Twatt (Jack Davenport). Twatt is given the impossible job of shutting down the broadcasts.
Talulah Riley shines as Marianne, the nubile young lady who comes aboard to teach Carl the ways of the world. The sequence plays out in ways that are equal parts funny, romantic and sad. January Jones has a small part as the cruelest bride in the history of civilized mankind. The most important character in the film is the music itself. Guitars, drums and bass pulsate toward the shore, giving British youth a healthy dose of defiance and a reason to dance, fall in love and feel free. Music from the 1960’s had something current music does not, it was forbidden fruit. In 2016, pop and rock music is used to sell everything from cheeseburgers to SUVs. It’s a rare treat to see a time when the music of youth scared parents, pushed national governments to plot ways to end it and gave a fading Empire’s youth a chance to feel joy.
The idiots who cancelled this series deserve to go to that special Hell reserved for child molesters and people who talk at the theater. “Firefly” is the story of outer space cowboys, eking out an existence on the fringe of the universe aboard a Firefly class spaceship dubbed Serenity. The crew is lead by the swaggering Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). He was on the losing side of a galactic war and no longer fits into decent society. It was an inventive, amusing series that was gone too soon. But the graphic novels are solid and this film is grand entertainment. “Serenity” turned a profit, but not enough of one to resurrect the TV show that spawned it, which is a catastrophe.
You’ll have to settle for Summer Glau kicking some serious ass and the rest of the cast melding into a great ensemble once again. What was essentially to the story line for a season two that never happened, a great conspiracy that created the sub-human Reavers and unleashed them into the universe is uncovered. The action is well-paced and the special effects are far better than they were on the tv show. Like the show, you find yourself rooting for the bad guys, the crew of Serenity, and grow to hate the authorities who are supposed to be the good guys.
This is the film that Chiwetel Ejiofor deserved an Oscar nod for (just kidding, but not by much). Browncoats love this film for the reunion of the great cast and the classic banter; people who never watched the series will be sucked in by the action and Joss Whedon’s ability to tell a story.
Playing God (1997)
“On a good day, Hell can look a lot like L.A.” That line pretty much sums up the ride you’ll take watching this film. Stripped of his medical license after performing an operation while sky high on amphetamines, in-demand Los Angeles surgeon Dr. Eugene Sands (David Duchovny, expertly cast) is forced from his near-celebrity former life only to find himself crossing paths with Raymond Blossom, an infamous counterfeiter played by Timothy Hutton. Sands catches Blossom’s attention in a bar one night, when he calmly saves a man’s life MacGyver-style amid pumping music, mass confusion and chaos all around. Since Raymond has employees who can’t visit the hospital, he hires Sands to act as surgeon to the underworld.
There’s the added bonus of Angelina Jolie when she was still an actor and not yet a world-wide personality. Throw in Peter Stormare who is brilliantly sleazy and there’s a high speed chase to go along with all the 90’s era gangster-esque dialogue.
The Fantastic Planet (1973)
A highly original concept in animation and science fiction that works as an eerie and engrossing film.”The Fantastic Planet” is French-Czechoslovak co-production that made it to the screen after much of the film had to be smuggled out of the then-Communist country when the crew feared the government would confiscate or destroy the film, labeling it as subversive. The animation style was achieved by using cut-out and hinged paper being sketched on and filmed. The technique itself is mesmerizing. It lends a depth and off-kilter quality to the story, directed by Rene Laloux and Roland Topor.
Based on Stefan Wul’s novel, “Ome En Serie,” it’s a story of puny earthlings from a decimated planet who now live as pets or fugitives from cold, uncaring robot overlords. It’s a pretty somber film and the English subtitles over the clinical-sounding French only makes things all that much more strange. When the earthlings rise up in revolution, you’re invested in the outcome on planet Ygam.
This is England (2006)
“This is England” will delight and scare you, sometimes in the same scene. Based on incidents from his childhood, writer-director Shane Meadows gives an unflinching look at Margaret Thatcher’s England.
It made me miss my Doc Martens’ and my Ben Sherman shirts. Of course, living in San Diego in the 80s was much different than England. But we had Reagan on this side of the Atlantic. I’m not trying to start a political flame war when I say the two leaders were kindred spirits and there were many of us that were unhappy with the direction our countries took. This film captures that feeling, and a whole lot more.
The music is amazing: Mods, New Romantics, and Skinheads are the major youth sub-cultures of the summer of 1983. Shaun is a 12 year-old kid without a Dad, left to wander about, alone during the school holidays. He meets Woody and begins hanging out with a friendly bunch of Skinheads.
All is going well for Shaun, until Combo arrives on the scene. Combo is an angry ex-con, bitter and racist and more than a little psychotic. He is a window into the world that was England in that era: Racists and xenophobes search for answers to the mass unemployment and the fall out of the Falklands War. There is grit and anger running through this film, but hope and love too. In short, “This is England” is brilliant.
Brutal and raw and based on a true story, “Polytechnique” is a throbbing nerve of a film that is beautifully shot in black and white. The École Polytechnique Massacre happened in Canada back in 1989. After cornering a group of female engineering students, the killer informs the young women that he hated feminists and despised the idea of them pursuing careers in engineering. The media uproar that followed the massacre based on misogyny echoed for a very long time.
Denis Villeneuve directed “Polytechnique” with enough skill to let some of the gorgeous filmwork lighten the severity of the situation. He did not step on the facts, over over-sell the horrors, he just told the story. There is a shortage of Quebecois films. If this powerful film about the hellish day and the reality that equal rights are still not a guarantee (neither is safety) is an example, we could use plenty more. I saw the Francophone dialogue version with English subtitles. Sometimes, it was difficult hearing such a musical language being used to deliver such harsh, insulting bile.
In Bruges (2008)
It is a crime against humanity that “In Bruges” was not a huge success at the box office. Laugh out loud funny and earnestly dark in equal measures, it is a story of Ray and Ken, two hit men in Bruges, Belgium, cooling off and laying low after a job went wrong. The plot is simple, with a few interesting twists and plenty of amusing moments. Academy Award winning director Martin McDonagh got the pieces together the right way. Brendan Gleeson is Ken, the experienced hitman with a weary soul. His partner is Colin Farrell’s Ray, sort of a dim bulb and a very unlucky one at that.
Is it wrong to care about a pair of hitmen? To laugh at a stoned dwarf? To laugh and cry at the same scene? The stoned dwarf is a pre-Game of Thrones Peter Dinklage, who weaves an elaborate, paranoid prediction of what is to come in the near future: A race war. The ending is pretty much a slam dunk of action and resolution that is guaranteed to make you gnash your teeth in thinly-veiled rage. It also makes you want to start the movie all over again, because it is far too good to only watch once.
High Fidelity (2000)
According to my wife, this is the story of my life. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing; but it is a great movie. John Cusack stars as Rob Gordon, owner of Championship Vinyl, a failing record store. A place where he and his two employees, Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black, before he got incredibly annoying), argue about music, insult customers who lack the appropriate musical knowledge and generally refuse to grow up. It’s kind of like Peter Pan owns a music store and the Lost Boys are social misfits. And everything boils down to a Top Five list.
Rob has been dumped by his girlfriend, Laura (the subtle and gorgeous Iben Hjejle) and he sets out to figure out what his worst break-up was, so he compiles his Top Five for break-ups. The ensuing exes, shown in flashback and current time are a collection of the beautiful, the damaged and the still-angry.
There’s also Tim Robbins as Rob’s nemesis Ian. Ian is the guy who stole Laura’s heart with his exotic cooking and sensitive ponytail man vibe. This is the troubling part for me — am I supposed to be Rob according to my dear wife’s assessment? A guy with 20,000 records and the world’s most elaborate filing system? Well, okay, that’s accurate. He’s also a guy too addicted to snark and elitist about his musical viewpoint. He’s certain that his taste is impeccable and everyone else is either wrong or mislead. Okay, maybe I am Rob Gordon. Well, if that’s the case, I’m fine with that, since the movie hits on all cylinders and offers up a satisfying conclusion. I doubt I’m as good looking as Cusack, but anytime Bruce Springsteen wants to dispense advice, I’m all ears.
Jesus of Montreal (1989)
The annual Passion Play in the Montreal Basilica has been produced for more than 40 years and is growing stale. With modern audiences looking at it as dated and somewhat boring, it is time for a change. The local priest finds new, younger, actors to breath some life into the annual story. Their revised version is very literal and takes the teachings of Christ to be subversive and radical.
The audience loves the newer version, which makes the church authorities nervous and afraid they will offend the establishment. Their efforts to tone down the actors involved fail, because the actors themselves changed by their own play. Daniel (played with marvelous subtlety by Lothaire Bluteau) plays Christ in the Passion and his own journey begins to mirror that of the Messiah. Deftly written and directed by Denys Arcand, it is a modern day application of the New Testament, but not a club you over the head message film.
One obvious parallel is when Daniel arrives late to an audition, shouting out to his friend to leave her clothes on. The audition’s producers attempt to have Daniel tossed, which causes him to go into a rage; overturning lights, cameras and calling out the powers that be. You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to make the connection of Jesus and the moneylenders in the temple. There are more moments that echo the Bible, and quite a few scenes where theater and acting are shown in a positive and a negative light. By the end, “Jesus of Montreal” may have you thinking about God or theater. One thing it will do is have you engaged in the lives of the characters, all of which are different people than they were.