Friday, April 12, 2013

Jonathan's Top 5 Most Underrated Movies

5. Batman (1967)

Before the recent Christopher Nolan trilogy, the original Adam West and Burt Ward film, almost always left out of the discussion of Batman movies, was easily the best. It's true that the original 60's run of Batman was campy, even for its time, but I maintain that that is why it is amazing. 
This movie is truly the epitome of what a movie is supposed to be: escapism. If you need to be entertained for two hours, watch this film, you won't regret it. The over-the-top-ness and overall satire that was present in the 60's TV show simply ooze off the screen in this film and sarcasm of the era, whether intentional or not, is thick and hilarious. 
Let's not forget the sheer amount of talent involved in this movie too. Not only do Adam West and Burt Ward put on their always stellar personas of Batman and Robin, but Frank Gorshin is the best Riddler to ever live and Burgess Meredith is basically a shoe in for the acting "Hall of Fame" if there were such a thing. Ultimately, no matter how good Batman films continue to be, none will ever truly eclipse this one in my mind.

4. Dream a Little Dream (1989)
I watched this movie knowing that it starred Corey Feldman and Corey Haim and I never expected it to be anything more than a silly comedy and a way to kill time. Instead I was completely surprised to find a movie that had a genuine message and some moments of tense drama. 
The movie centers around Feldman's character Bobby Keller, a high school troublemaker with a sub-par life. In Bobby's neighborhood lives an elderly man Coleman (Jason Robards) who is very philosophical and attempts to learn things from his dreams and attempts experiments in order to influence this. He also despises Bobby and the other neighborhood riff-raff. Meanwhile, Bobby has a crush on his friend Joel's girlfriend Lainie. The only problem is Joel is a tough guy and not entirely stable. 
One night while running away from home for separate reasons Bobby and Lainie collide in Coleman's yard and are both knocked unconscious, when Bobby awakes, we find that Coleman has somehow become trapped in Bobby's body and the real Bobby only exists in his dreams. In order for Coleman to return to reality, and to get his wife Gena back, Coleman must live in Bobby's shoes and fix his messed up life, and he has a limited amount of time to do this. 
For one, this premise really surprised me, because, as I said earlier, I thought this movie was going to be a comedy, but it really was more of a drama than anything else, and even though Feldman is not really renowned for his acting, I felt he did a great job portraying a frustrated old man trapped in a teenager's body who desperately wants his life to return to normal. The movie is great because it emphasizes the power of love as well as a message about understanding. It may very easily be the best movie "the Coreys" ever made.

3. They Live (1988)
They Live is the best example of a terrible movie with an awesome plot that I have ever seen. All this movie needs is a half-decent remake and it would blow everyone away. The acting is awful, chiefly because it's protagonist is played by former wrestling star Rowdy Roddy Piper whose performance makes you question whether wrestling really is fake because the man has no acting ability whatsoever. But as I mentioned earlier, it's not the acting that makes this movie good, it's the overall concept. 
Piper plays a homeless drifter who lands a job working in construction and winds up living in a shantytown. One night he happens to witness a break-in to a local television channel by some pirates and a seemingly religious fanatic comes on foaming at the mouth about the evils that "they" are visiting upon the world without anyone knowing. Later on Piper's character haplessly stumbles into the stronghold of these fanatics and finds boxes and boxes of sunglasses. Shortly after that when Piper sees this compound get raided by the government, he puts the sunglasses on and discovers that only through them can the truth be seen, the truth that we are being manipulated by aliens who live among us and disguise themselves as humans. 
The genius of this movie is not even that, but it's that the glasses show us other truths as well, they show that things like advertising and television and money are just being used to manipulate us. The scene when Piper first puts on the glasses is truly awesome, it's the point at which the movie makes sense and also the point where the viewer can question the validity of such claims. Even if the viewer decides that this is just paranoid subversive thinking, it's not a concept that crosses our minds on a daily basis and They Live forces the issue, and sometimes movies like this need to be made. Usually I hate remakes, but since I feel that with such an excellent plot it would be hard to mess this up, I'm hoping that someone will remake it someday.

2. Cobra (1986)
Aside from Rocky, this film is Stallone's best in my opinion. It centers around Stallone and his partner as cops on the "zombie squad"--the team of cops who work the night-shift, in a city that's been recently ravaged by a series of axe-murders. The cops are left largely clueless until they get a witness, Brigitte Nielsen, but something goes wrong and Cobretti (Stallone) and his partner soon find themselves in a huge shootout against an entire gang of murderers and hell-raisers intent on killing Nielsen before she can testify. 
What makes this movie awesome is partly the machismo, but mostly the atmosphere. This movie is probably one of the most "80's" time capsule movies of all time. It even includes a shakedown-montage when Cobra and his partner are looking for information about the murders by running down the shadier elements, this is inter-spliced with model Ingrid (Nielsen) at a photo-shoot with some robots and all set to the song "Angel of the City" by Robert Tepper, which happens to be one of the most epic songs ever, and perfectly married to the visuals being presented. This montage is also the first time you see Nielson in the film at all, and probably the last time you'll see a musical montage of any kind in a movie ever. One thing is for sure, if it is the last one, it's the best sendoff the plot device could possibly ask for. 
Add this to the action in the film including but not limited to; chase scenes between the bad guys and Stallone in a 1950 Mercury hot rod, and a shootout scene in which the cops actually appear competent and hit the people/things they're shooting at instead of emptying clips into nothing. Additionally, whoever cast Brian Thompson as the villain in this film should get an award as he is easily one of the the most intimidating villains in any film, with dialogue to match. We even have an infamous "car won't start" scene, which I'm quite partial to. This movie is the perfect blend of suspense, action, and slight moments of horror all dipped in an 80's candy coating and that makes it one of the most entertaining films ever made.

1. Dark City (1998)

Dark City is a movie that I feel got it's rightful due years late. Having come out only a year before the similarly themed and paradigm-shifting The Matrix, and owing partly to the use of some of the same sets, Dark City unjustly lived in The Matrix's shadow.  Only recently have I seen it get mentioned in the echelon of movies in which it belongs, usually in lists similar to this one. 
In 1999 when The Matrix came out, every movie after, and several before, were invariably compared to it, but in reality, Dark City was the first of those two movies to question that very subject – reality. Rufus Sewell stars as the amnesiac Mr. Murdoch who awakens one night at the scene of a murder, completely confused and scared. The movie does a great job of pulling you into his world, it rarely ever presents anything to the viewer for the first time without also presenting it to Murdoch for the first time. This builds the suspense, and allows the audience to empathize with the protagonist, something which I feel most movies skip in order to pander to a less pensive audience. 
A school of thought which I detest in movies that most movies take is the thought that the audience should never be left asking questions, so unnatural explanations are often given as to what is going on, even if the characters within the movie are unaware of what is presented to the audience. Dark City doesn't do this; it leaves the viewers as metaphorically in the dark as it's inhabitants literally are. This movie captivates, and is full of suspense and twists, and it's throwback nighttime noir atmosphere is much appreciated amidst a newer school of filmmaking that dominated much of the films around the turn of the millennium. The ending particularly is a wonderful surprise, and I'd find it hard to believe anyone who watches this movie would leave unimpressed.

Jonathan Updike is a dude, a former editor, occasional writer, and a lover of the 80's. He has seen far too many movies to not write about them. At the moment, he is all out of bubble gum.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

John Daniel's Top 5 Most Underrated Movies

5. The Lost Weekend (1945)

Can this really be considered underrated? It won 4 academy awards: Best Screenplay, Best Actor (Ray Milland), Best Director (Billy Wilder), and Best Picture--all of which were quite deserved. But since 1945, it seems it has been forgotten. Why don't we hear more about this movie? We hear about Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot, and other Wilder films, but why not this one? It is definitely one of his best.

A graphic portrayal of intense alcoholism, The Lost Weekend was the Shame (2011) of its day. Incredibly vivid, its representation of alcoholism is as powerful and haunting today as it was in the 40s. There were several times in the movie where I was genuinely frightened. It is just as overwhelming as Requiem for a Dream.

Ray Milland's performance is absolutely stunning and convincing. With it, the movie brilliantly conveys its meaning and purpose without being preachy or sacrificing reality (like The Public Enemy). It is not naive, and does not pull any punches: the film is accurate, explosive, and full of force. Like Shame and Requiem for a Dream, at the finish, one decides firmly, "That horror will not be my life!"

4. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

When this movie ended, I wanted to start it over and watch it again. How can Adam Sandler be so dumb so much of the time, and then give an award-deserving performance in one of Paul Thomas Anderson's best films?

Sandler's Barry Egan is one of the greatest movie characters I have ever seen. Barry is a completely vulnerable person, and Sandler's performance brings the audience into solidarity with every emotion he is feeling. When he feels disappointed, the audience hurts. When he is angry, the audience is angry. When he cries, the audience feels like crying. When he is happy, the audience experiences the same wonderful joy.

With Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson has created a beautiful love story, with so much color. It is often like a fairy tale: a nervous, neurotic, lonely, depressed guy meets a calm, stable, beautiful, absolutely lovely lady and finds in her pure comfort, pure home. This inspires him to rise above himself and accomplish things he never would have accomplished otherwise.

Absolutely enjoyable, Punch-Drunk Love takes one through the beautiful journey of Barry's soul: from tears to leaps of joy; from defeatism to awesome victory; from running away like a child, to becoming Clint Eastwood; from not being able to confront his sisters, to overpowering Philip Seymour Hoffman (another feature of the movie).

Punch-Drunk Love is funny, lovely, full of joy, and perfect. It is an emotional ride, but a fulfilling one. I simply love this movie!

3. Ed Wood (1994)

By far Tim Burton's best movie, and maybe Johnny Depp's best performance, it does not make sense to me why Ed Wood is not a very well-known movie. The movie includes so many good perfmances, including the award-winning Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, Depp's quirky Edward D. Wood, Jr., the hilarious Bill Murray, and Sarah Jessica Parker.

The performances are not the only wonderful things this movie has to offer. It is exceptionally original, yet very Tim Burton. The film is in black and white, includes graveyards, fake plastic flying saucers, creepy Lugosi hand gestures, angora sweaters, transvestites, a rubber octopus, and on and on. How is this movie not popular?  It is hilarious! Yet not without a serious tone. A movie about the director of Plan 9 from Outer Space simply could not have been any better.

2. Lolita (1962)

Lolita is about a man who falls insanely in love--or, better, in lust--with a 15-year-old girl named Lolita. His mad obsession with her leads him down a road that will completely change his life, down to the very core of his being.

Maybe Stanley Kubrick's best film, the movie stars James Mason, with Peter Sellers in a supporting role. With this, it may not be the most underrated film, but it definitely does not receive the recognition that it should.

Throughout the movie, one is surprised again and again that it came out in the early 60s. The whole film is coated with layers of eerie darkness, and each character is twisted in his/her own special way. One cannot help but think, "This is just not okay." All of it adds up to an absolutely brilliant, absolutely entertaining Kubrick masterpiece.

1. The Trial (1962)

Orson Welles is a very highly acclaimed director, and is yet completely underrated at the same time. No one doubts the magnificence of Citizen Kane, but what of The Magnificent Ambersons, Journey into Fear, Othello, The Lady from Shanghai, or The Stranger? But by far the most underrated film of all time is his The Trial. It is a 60s film, but it looks worse than The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari did before it was restored!

The picture to the right is an example of your typical DVD case for The Trial. It looks terrible! Who gets paid to make that crap? It is so unfortunate, because the movie is brilliant.

The Trial is frustrating at first because it is so confusing. What is going on?! There is an overarching story (a man is "arrested" for a reason completely unknown to him), but one gets side-tracked because every scene presents more questions, and none of them are ever answered. It isn't until you realize that you're watching a nightmare that you actually begin to stop trying to understand and start realizing how amazing the movie is. It is a prime example of the film wizardry of which Welles was so capable.

John Daniel Holloway is a Biblical-Theological Studies major. Apart from his passion for reading theology books & writing (@, he loves watching movies. A huge fan of classic films, it's rare for him to find a movie these days that he genuinely likes.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Cory Volk's Top 5 Most Underrated Movies

5. Tetro (2009)

Tetro, written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now), never suffered from negative reviews. It just went largely unnoticed by audiences at large except major fans of Coppola or Vincent Gallo or people like me who pay attention to movie news. Thus, it perfectly qualifies as an underrated film.

Tetro is loosely based off of Coppola’s own experiences growing up in a large family dominated by artists, all of which were/are well known, and the problems that brings to reputation and relationships, within and outside of one’s family. Gallo brilliantly portrays the main character, Angelo, nicknamed ‘Tetro,’ living in Buenos Aires and how he deals with the arrival of his brother, Bennie, and the family issues this stirs up.

Obviously, this film is straight up drama, and much of it can be slow and ‘artsy,’ but the cinematography (filmed in black and white evoking film noir) is beautiful, the performances great, and the story poignant. The story can be a bit confusing at times and gets shifted to the background in favor of visuals, but it comes out on top in the end with real power. Fans of older films in the French New Wave, Antonioni/Felini Italian era will most appreciate this films pacing and design. For those wishing to get their feet wet in the art-house genre, new and old, this is a very accessible, modern film that will hopefully lead to more viewings of older films.

4. Valhalla Rising (2009)

Director/writer Nicolas Winding Refn got an early start with the Danish Pusher trilogy and then Bronson which showcased Tom Hardy’s exceptional, underrated acting skills which qualifies as an underrated film in its own right. With these first features, Refn started to build his reputation as a director of dark, violent, but artistic material with a fine eye for cinematography and sound. The 2011 release of Drive starring Ryan Gosling brought Refn into the American, Hollywood cinema limelight with massive popularity attributed mostly to the film’s star and soundtrack. But a few years before that, in 2009, Refn produced Valhalla Rising, a nightmarish, surreal spectacle starring Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Pusher trilogy, A Royale Affair) set in an unspecified location involving Vikings. That description and the trailers got me so excited for this film since I love sword & sandal epics, but I was probably one of the only ones who knew about it.

What I got from the film was something entirely different than other medieval fair. Valhalla Rising has little to no storyline except that One-Eye (Mikkelsen), a silent, vicious warrior held captive by some other warrior people is recruited to journey to ‘Jerusalem’ with some Christian-Vikings to retake the Holy Land. What you get is a brutal, visually stunning film with incredible sound and an underlying commentary on religion that even I haven’t quite figured out yet and I’ve seen the film a number of times. I am a huge fan of Terrence Malick’s (The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven) films, and the tone of Valhalla Rising is very similar. So if you liked Drive and relish in the dark and brooding, this is just for you.

3. The Prestige (2006)

 I know you’re probably thinking “why is The Prestige on a list of ‘underrated’ films? I really liked that movie and it got good reviews!” And you would be right. Christopher Nolan’s 5th film got a 76% on rottentomatoes and earned the description “full of twists and turns, The Prestige is a dazzling period piece that never stops challenging the audience.”

So it would seem that the majority of people really enjoyed The Prestige and it is not underrated at all. However, I see it as underrated because I think it is Nolan’s best film, next to Memento which is my first favorite of his. I think many would put The Dark Knight or Inception at the top of Nolan’s achievements next to Memento, but I disagree. Like Inception and Memento, The Prestige provides a commentary on the art of storytelling. Inception focuses more on film with the obvious connections to dreams while The Prestige tackles the idea of showmanship and how to most effectively sell a performance.

I wrote a paper a few years back on both films which you can read on my old movie blog here to get a more in-depth explanation/analysis of both films’ themes. But back to the main point. The Prestige is a masterfully rendered film on every level. Gorgeous cinematography, editing, sound design/sound editing, soundtrack, you name it. Each level is carefully controlled. David Bordwell and Karen Thompson devote a whole chapter to studying sound in The Prestige in their book Film: An Introduction (7th edition I think?) that is fascinating to see how sound works to connect the film scene by scene and helps to put the puzzle together. All of these facets aside, The Prestige is most interesting in how it relates to film theory and storytelling. The beginning and ending soliloquy by Michael Caine’s character reveals Nolan’s thematic intention and leads to ideas more interesting than what Inception or The Dark Knight have to offer. So take the time to watch The Prestige a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th time (or even more), and really think about what’s being said. I think you’ll find it truly fascinating.

2. The Fountain (2006) 

While all of Darren Aronofsky’s films (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan) have received overwhelmingly positive reviews, it was his third film The Fountain that did not do so well. Rottentomatoes calls it “visually rich but suffers from its own unfocused ambitions.” Many of the segments from reviews are equally negative and worse with the likes of Richard Roeper calling it “one of the worst movies of the year.”

I would beg to differ and say that it showcases Hugh Jackman’s best performance to date, an epic soundtrack by Clint Mansell, mind-blowing visuals, and a story that, while scattered and heavily philosophical, still delivers an emotional wallop. Aronofsky used minimal computer generated effects for this film resorting to old techniques (using mirrors, elaborate sets, and the like) to create scenes and images that are just gorgeous to behold. I will admit that the reviews are right in saying that the visual aspect comes out on top here. Still, I do not think that all parts of a film need to be equally balanced or that story must come first.

The Fountain is more about the aesthetic of sight and sound and how multiple time periods, worlds, and dimensions can be combined to form a symphony of sensory experience. Now, the Buddhist messages and ruminations on death, mortality, and immortality seem a bit bombastic, but it is Jackman’s compelling, emotional performance that lends more consideration to these themes. The surreal nature of the film also leaves room for much interpretation which is something I think most people are uncomfortable with and is one of the reasons why The Fountain is generally unpopular and little seen. So if you’re one of those who hated it at first or were too confused by it or haven’t seen it, give it another viewing. It may not end up being one of your new favorite films of all time, but I guarantee you’ll enjoy it.

1. Funny Games (2007) 

Austrian director Michael Haneke filmed an Austrian version of this film back in 1997 and later remade the film in English as an American release. Both films are almost exactly the same, shot for shot, but the Austrian version holds more of Haneke’s signature (very) long takes and other nuances. I’m choosing to look at the American 2007 version here, starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Michael Pitt. The summary review on rotten tomatoes reads “though made with great skill, Funny Games is nevertheless a sadistic exercise in chastising the audience.”

 I remember seeing trailers for this movie back in 2007 and thought the same thing. Looked like another pointless horror film that relied on gore and sadistic torture to attract an audience. The movie didn’t do very well probably because it isn’t that at all. Haneke is an incredibly focused, relentless director when it comes to targeting the audience as perpetrators in what is happening on screen, and Funny Games in particular plays with this idea in 4th-wall breaking acts.

I recently read a fascinating article online that calls Haneke’s style and themes “sadomodernism” which you can read here. While all of Haneke’s films are works of art and astonishing in their own way, Funny Games proves extremely interesting in terms of its voyeuristic themes and Haneke’s signature unbearable intensity. A graduate film studies course could easily spend weeks studying this awesome film.

Cory Volk is an English Literature Major at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA, with a double minor in Film studies and Technical Writing. He loves a great glass of Scotch paired with an even better film, and his favorite director is Terrence Malick.