Thursday, October 24, 2013

10 Mind-Blowing Movies You've (Probably) Never Seen - Part 2

Welcome back for the final (belated) part of this two-part blog series where I delve into the odder corners of Hollywood. All sitting comfortably? Excellent. Then let's get the ball rolling with...

5. The Salton Sea (2002) - directed by D.J. Caruso

Val Kilmer's always been very hit-and-miss as an actor. He's appeared in some woeful crap over the years, he really has - but he's also found time to put in some truly exemplary performances too. Like all good things, you just have to search for them. As Doc Holiday in the old-style western 'Tombstone,' for example, he owns every single scene in which he appears. And in the excellent 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,' his Gay Perry character almost steals the whole film away from Robert Downey Jr - which is no mean feat. Then there's his turn as Danny Parker in the obscure 2002 neo-noir thriller, 'The Salton Sea' - and while it's hardly one of his most memorable roles, it's certainly one of his most entertaining.

The tale begins in proper noir fashion with a wounded Kilmer playing trumpet in a burning apartment with a bag of money at his side, while the rest of the film acts as a flashback to explain how he reached this point. It turns out he's been living a double life in recent years. Once a happily-married jazz musician until his wife was murdered in a roadside dive, he's since morphed into a tattooed speed freak and meth middleman who, when he's not getting wasted with his fellow junkies, also sells information to a pair of undercover narcotics agents. He's also attempting to finalise a major drugs deal with the seriously deranged dealer, Pooh Bear, while at the same time trying to rescue his pretty neighbour from her own personal demons...

With its hip flavour, cool dialogue and eccentric characters, 'Salton Sea' is one of those crime tales that couldn't have existed had Tarantino not paved the way years previously, yet the director still manages to come up with something that's a little different from the norm. Despite an over-reliance on flashbacks the storytelling is top-notch and keeps the audience on its toes until the very last frame. Believe me, nothing is what it seems in this one. Kilmer's great as the fatalistic narrator with shadowy motives, but it's really the supporting cast that helps make this one to remember. Vincent D'Onofrio as the bizarre Pooh Bear is a standout, as is Peter Sarsgaard as Kilmer's drug buddy. An that's not mentioning Deborah Unger, Luis Guzman, Danny Trejo and all the other familiar faces. A word of warning however - those of you planning to watch 'The Salton Sea' for the first time will get a lot more out of it if you avoid reading anything about the film's plot beforehand. Um, with the exception of this blog post, obviously.

Weirdness Factor: Medium.
The film itself isn't particularly hard to follow, although the constant flashbacks, plot twists, and odd little vignettes the director inserts into the narrative means the viewer really has to pay attention all the way through. Some of those vignettes are truly bizarre, though, such as the planned robbery of Bob Hope's stool sample by a bunch of speed freaks. And then there's the unforgettable Pooh Bear character, who's obsessed with recreating the Kennedy assassination over and over by using pigeons in radio-controlled toy cars...

Current Availability: Easy to find.
As a Warner catalogue title, this can be picked up pretty cheaply at most outlets.

4. The Limits of Control (2009) - directed by Jim Jarmusch

Jim Jarmusch has long been one of my favourite directors and I love pretty much everything he does without reservation. 'Strangers in Paradise,' 'Down By Law,' 'Mystery Train,' 'Ghost Dog,' Dead Man,' - each one's great in its own way. And even his lesser movies (e.g 'Night on Earth', 'Broken Flowers') I can return to more than once. The guy's made a career out of directing movies totally on his own terms, which I greatly admire, but one thing that becomes obvious fairly early on is that he doesn't really care about plots. And nowhere is this more obvious than in his most recent movie, 'The Limits of Control.'

What little story there is revolves around a nameless, taciturn, sharply-dressed man on a mysterious assignment that involves wandering around various regions of Spain to have cryptic conversations with an odd assortment of characters (including John Hurt and Tilda Swinton, among others). At the end of each conversation his contact hands him a matchbox containing an instruction of some kind, which he then gobbles along with an expresso served in two cups. Thus armed, he moves on to his next contact in another part of Spain, all the time getting closer and closer to his final task...

'The Limits of Control' is an existential crime movie without a crime. Or at least one that's never specified. But it doesn't really matter because Jarmusch has constructed a film where the viewer is encouraged to just sit back and enjoy the ride. And thanks to cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, it's one hell of a beautiful ride too. Every shot in the film is so meticulously constructed that you could freeze-frame it and stick it on the wall. And because you're never sure where the movie's headed every scene is totally unexpected too. Plus it's got Bill Murray in it - which always helps.

Weirdness Factor: High.
Those hoping for a coherent story may want to look elsewhere, 'cause they sure aren't gonna find it here. There's a certain amount of cause-and-effect present, but not a whole lot - and because so little is explained in the narrative it's left to the viewer to come up with his or her own answers as to the film's meaning. Assuming there is one. And similar to Jarmucsh's previous works, the film moves at a very slow pace, which may prove taxing to most modern-day viewers.

Current Availability: Easy to find.
You can pick this at most of the usual outlets without too much trouble. It's a pretty nice little package too, with a cool, hour-long 'making-of' documentary as a bonus.

3. Lost Highway (1997) - directed by David Lynch

To be perfectly honest, I could have stuck any David Lynch movie on this list - and anybody who's seen 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me', 'Eraserhead,' 'Mulholland Drive,' or 'Inland Empire' will know what I'm talking about here. But put a gun to my head and I'd have to say of all the movies in Lynch's filmography, 'Lost Highway' remains the most inscrutable - which is really saying something. And since it's almost impossible to give a coherent summary of the film I won't even try. Instead, here are a few highlights to give you a taste:

Saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his girlfriend (Patricia Arquette) receive a series of videos taken by somebody who enters their house and films them as they sleep. At a party he meets the man responsible who says he's at Fred's home right now, so Fred calls his own number and ends up talking to the same man who's also standing in front of him. Before too long there's a murder and a transformation, and then we follow an auto mechanic named Pete (Balthazar Getty), who becomes involved with a gangster boss (Robert Loggia) and his manipulative young wife (also played by Patricia Arquette). But what ultimately connects Fred and Pete, and who is the mystery man with the camera who seems to control everyone's fates...?

On the surface, 'Lost Highway' starts out as a noir-ish mystery thriller, but as usual Lynch discards the familiar genre tropes early on and instead makes his movie a nightmarish meditation on identity and paranoia, with doppelgangers and time-loops thrown in just to confuse things further. For those willing to look for it, there is an internal logic to the film, but it's definitely not an easy movie to figure out. Which is the whole point, of course. Each time I see this one I spot something I missed before and another theory immediately goes flying out the window.

Weirdness Factor: High.
In terms of inscrutability, this really is the ultimate Lynch movie - although 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me' comes a pretty close second. As with most of his stuff, there's no way the viewer can guess what's coming next which only adds to the queasy nightmare quality of the film - that sense that there's something really horrible just around the next corner. Which there usually is. Worth mentioning is Robert Blake's intensely scary performance as the Mystery Man, and Robert Loggia's unforgettable scene where he confronts a motorist who dared to tailgate him.

Current Availability: Easy to find.
Plenty of versions available, but the 2-disc DVD from Cinema Club has got the best selection of extra stuff.

2. The Swimmer (1968) - directed by Frank Perry

One sunny day, middle-aged Ned Merrill (Lancaster), clad only in swimming trunks, suddenly appears in the backyard of some neighbours several miles from his home and asks to use their pool. As he reminisces happily with his hosts, whom he hasn't seen in a long time, Ned comes up with the idea of using his other friends' and neighbours' backyard pools to 'swim' all the way to his house. But what starts out as a fun adventure soon turns sour as the people with whom he comes into contact gradually become less and less welcoming. And as the day wears on and more of Ned's past comes to light, we learn his life is perhaps not quite as wonderful as he's been making out...

'The Swimmer', based on a 1964 short story by John Cheever, is a surreal, highly stylized, allegorical drama that examines middle-age disillusionment and failure. It's also a film that could only have been made in the late sixties - as the score by Marvin Hamlisch only confirms - but that's also part of its charm. At its most simplistic, the story tells of a hero setting off on a journey and having a bunch of strange adventures before reaching his end goal, a little wiser than he was before. But in this case a lot less happier. A lot less. Yet while it may not be an uplifting film by any means it's still a hugely satisfying one, and Lancaster - who was in his mid-fifties at the time and had to spend the entire film in just swimming trunks - really gives a powerhouse performance as the tragic Ned.

Weirdness Factor: High.
There's a dreamlike quality to the whole film (Lancaster just appears from nowhere as the opening titles begin) that leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. The conversations Ned has with his neighbours are all cryptic enough that the viewer has to work to figure out the underlying meanings. Also, the movie's got none of the fluid movement one usually expects to see between scenes. Is the story a hallucination or reality? And if it's the latter, does it take place over a whole day, or over the course of many afternoons (as it does in the original short story) to represent the seasons of a man's life? You decide.

Current Availability: Easy to find.
Currently available as a Sony Pictures DVD. However the specialist distributor, Grindhouse Releasing, have said they'll be releasing a version of 'The Swimmer' next year with an improved picture and some extra features. So if you don't mind waiting...

1. The World's Greatest Sinner (1962) - directed by Timothy Carey

Actor Timothy Carey was one of Hollywood's true eccentrics, and when you consider how many crazy people there are in Hollywood, that's no small claim. But even amongst that kind of competition Carey was a one-of-a-kind. Stanley Kubrick clearly saw something unique in him too, and gave him memorable roles in two of his early films, 'The Killing' and 'Paths of Glory', and from there the legendarily unpredictable Carey went on to become the 'go-to' man whenever a strange oddball character part needed to be cast. But he was also itching to make his own unique statement on film and from 1958 to 1961, whenever he could scrape a few bucks together he went about shooting scenes for his own labour of love: 'The World's Greatest Sinner'.

Clarence Hilliard (Carey) is a frustrated insurance salesman who quits his meaningless job one day after he's struck with the revelation that there is no god but man, and every man is a god whose birthright is eternal life. He starts preaching his gospel on street corners but after witnessing an ecstatic crowd at a rock and roll gig, Clarence forms his own band and soon learns how to get his message across while whipping his audience into a frenzy. With his growing fan base he decides to not only become the head of his own religious cult (rechristening himself 'God Hilliard' in the process), but also decides to form his own 'Eternal Man' political party and put himself forward as the next presidential candidate. But the biblical God has other ideas...

So as you can see, nothing too ambitious - just God, the universe and everything in between. But I have to be honest here, as fascinating as 'The World's Greatest Sinner' is, it's not a well-made film by any stretch of the imagination. It's been made on a very low budget and for most of the running time the film is barely coherent. The direction is stilted, the editing is choppy and amateurish, and the cast are clearly people Carey just found on the street and said, 'Hey, you're in my movie. Now say this!'

But Carey's as charismatic a presence as ever and the whole thing is still worth a look - even if it's only the once - just so you can say you've seen it (Carey never put the film out on general release and for most of its 50-year history it's been confined to an occasional special showing at selected cinemas). And believe it or not the title song is composed and sung by a young unknown named Frank Zappa. So altogether now: 'As a sinner he's a winner / Honey, he's no beginner / He's rotten to the core / Daddy, you can't say no more / He's the world's greatest sinnnnner...'

Weirdness Factor: Off the scale
This one starts off being narrated by the devil in the form of a snake, and things only get stranger after that. I guarantee you will not find an odder movie anywhere else - this one really is in a class of its own.

Current availability: Not as hard to find as it used to be
For a long time this was almost impossible to find in any format, but those who are interested can now buy it in DVD format directly from Timothy Carey's estate on Ebay. Just type in the title in the search box and you should find it easily enough. However, it's not cheap and this movie really isn't for everyone - so think hard before plunking down your hard-earned cash.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

10 Mind-Blowing Movies You've (Probably) Never Seen - Part 1

I love weird. There, I said it.

For some reason I've always been attracted to the odd and the outlandish. I'm not sure why exactly, but it probably started in my teens when I was introduced to the bizarre world of 'The Prisoner' - courtesy of those old Channel 4 repeats. Man, I was addicted to that series from the very first frame - not only was Patrick McGoohan the coolest actor ever, but each episode ended up producing more questions than answers, and by the time the credits came up my head felt close to bursting. And I loved that.

Same goes for movies. Now don't get me wrong - I can appreciate a well-made commercial blockbuster as much as the next guy, but it's the weird ones I keep going back to. Because the way I see it any movie that can keep you thinking for hours, or even days, afterwards is one worth watching again. And again. And again. Ad infinitum. And so I thought, as a temporary break from my GREAT 'FORGOTTEN' THRILLERS series (which will return shortly folks), it might be an idea to write a post about a few of those mind-blowers that have meant something to me. Now I could waffle on about those ones I love that everybody else talks about - such as 'Memento,' 'Fight Club,' '2001,' Donnie Darko,' 'Performance,' and even 'Inception' - but where's the fun in that? No, I think it's much more enjoyable to take a look at those neglected movies that have managed to slip past people's radar for one reason or another, and so that's what I've done.

Now I should mention at this point that I've already written this blog post once, except Google Blogger, in its infinite wisdom, decided to delete it just as I was adding the finishing touches. Which I thought was nice of them. So because I'm having to recreate everything again from scratch, I've decided for the sake of my sanity to split this post into two parts - five movies this week, and then five more next week. So without further ado, and in no particular order, let's begin with...

10. The Passenger (1975) by Michelangelo Antonioni

Okay, this one stars everybody's favourite, Jack Nicholson. You can see him in the screenshot there, looking down at his doppelganger on the bed. Now I admit you may have already seen this one as it's been on TV a fair few times, but as it's also one of the more uncommercial movies in Jack's filmography there's an equally good chance it slipped you by.

Made back in the 'seventies when Nicholson was pretty much up for anything, the story focuses on journalist David Locke, who's in the Sahara researching a documentary on post-colonial Africa and hoping to interview some rebel fighters in the current civil war. Totally frustrated at his lack of success (and his life in general), Locke trudges back to his one-star hotel to find a fellow guest he's befriended has died in his room. Realizing that they look very much alike, Locke decides to swap passports with the dead man, little realizing that he was an illegal arms trader in the middle of a major deal...

This, along with the peerless 'Chinatown,' has to be one of my very favourite movies of Nicholson's, who's at his laconic best as the frustrated everyman trying to find some meaning to his life. The plot is constructed around a classic thriller premise, and brings to mind Graham Greene with its assumed identities and chases by shadowy figures across foreign landscapes. However Antonioni pretty much confines all that to the background and instead focuses on the psychological aspects of the story, such as the loneliness and spiritual turmoil of everyday existence. But don't let that put you off. Despite the slow pace which may frustrate modern-day audiences, this tale of identity, destiny, reinvention, and existential ennui remains film-making par excellenceand climaxes with a stunning, single seven-minute take from Antonioni that's almost worth the price of admission alone.

Weirdness Factor: High.
Although the movie contains a fairly linear narrative, with a beginning, middle, and an end, Antonio subverts the structure so that the meaning of each scene often only becomes clear on a second, or even third, viewing. And then, of course, there's that ending - which still puzzles audiences to this day. Not only in regards to its meaning, but as to how Antonioni actually shot the bloody thing.

Current Availability: Easy to find.
I believe Jack Nicholson actually owns the rights to this one, and after being unavailable for a long time, he finally consented to a DVD release a few years back. The movie clearly means a lot to him though, as it's the only time he's ever done an audio commentary for one of his films. The fact that it's also an interesting, not to mention extremely laid back, listening experience makes this one a must buy.

9. The Power (1968) by Byron Haskin

Remember George Hamilton. No? Well, I can't say I blame you. He hasn't really made many films of note over his long career. But you know what they say - every actor's got at least one good film in him, and if that's true then this is George's.

When members of a laboratory research team begin dying under suspicious circumstances, biochemist Jim Tanner (Hamilton) starts to think the killer may be a colleague of his possessing telekinetic abilities. But when he's put in the frame for the murders Tanner is forced to go on the run, and with only the name Adam Hart to go on, he's in a race against time to find the killer before he becomes the next victim...

Despite making almost no impact on its original release, 'The Power' must have made an impression on a certain David Cronenberg, as a decade later he made the far more successful 'Scanners,' which explored many of the same ideas as Haskins' movie. But as good as 'Scanners' is, it lacks the psychedelic ambience of 'The Power' - the feeling that just about anything could happen in the next scene. Which it usually does.

The movie starts out pretty strangely, but it really goes to town when Tanner's forced to go on the run and becomes the target of the villain's various head games. One of the best scenes has Tanner walking dejectedly along the street when he ducks from toy soldiers shooting real bullets at him, only to come across a dipping water bird who winks back. At an intersection, the traffic signs change from 'Don't Walk' to 'Don't Run,' and then he finds himself trapped on an empty carousel that speeds up to become a centrifuge. It's all great stuff, complete with freaky lighting and some nice special effects. There's also an unforgettable moment later on when Hamilton's character breaks the fourth wall by reacting to a musical cue on the film's soundtrack! Added to which, the surreal scene where Tanner's dropped into the middle of nowhere only to find an oasis that isn't what it seems could have been lifted straight from 'The Prisoner.'

Weirdness Factor: Medium.
Despite the numerous plot holes (such as, what's the villain actually doing with this awesome power of his?) the movie works as a sci-fi murder mystery with Tanner journeying across the country digging for clues as to the killer's identity, but the consistently psychedelic tone and goofy plot elements ensure that almost every scene is weird in its own way.

Current Availability: Fairly easy.
After being unavailable for a many years, Warner Brothers have now released this as part of their DVD-R Archive Collection, although it's region-locked for US customers. Answer? Get a multi-region player. Problem solved.

8. Seconds (1966) by John Frankenheimer

This Faustian paranoid thriller from 1966 could almost be a companion piece to 'The Passenger,' dealing as it does with the same themes of loneliness, identity and spiritual dissatisfaction. Except this one's much darker, both in tone and execution. The story concerns itself with sixty-something banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), who is dissatisfied with his marriage and his suburban life in general. When he's contacted by a mysterious organisation that can offer him a second chance at life with a new name and identity, as well as a new body in the shape of Rock Hudson, he jumps at the opportunity. The operation is successful and he slips into his new role as a bohemian artist on the west coast, but soon discovers that starting again isn't quite as straightforward as it seems, especially when you're constantly under the microscope...

I became a fan of director John Frankenheimer the moment I first saw the 1962 movie, 'The Manchurian Candidate', upon its re-release sometime in the mid-eighties. It's a fantastic film that marked the beginning of the director's 'sixties golden period, continuing with 'Seven Days In May,' and 'The Train', only to come to an inglorious end with the 1966 release of 'Seconds'. Which flopped badly. And it's no wonder, as it's one of the darkest and most uncommercial movies ever to be released by a major studio. Fortunately for Frankenheimer's career, he followed it up with the successful 'Grand Prix' the same year - which kept the money men happy at least - but he would never be as experimental as this again.

The story's almost an extended 'Twilight Zone' morality tale, albeit an extremely pessimistic one, and postulates that trying to reinvent yourself by destroying your past will leave you spiritually empty and unable to function. Nevertheless, 'Seconds' remains an unforgettable movie that defies classification (part horror, part thriller, part sci-fi, part black comedy), and features a career best performance by Rock Hudson as the distressed Tony Wilson(!) going through the mid-life crisis to end all mid-life crises. It also ends with one of the most terrifying climaxes in modern cinema.

Weirdness Factor: High.
On the surface, James Wong Howe's distorted camera angles and Jerry Goldsmith's edgy score contribute greatly to the nightmarish quality of the movie, but really it's the bizarre plot and the sense of paranoia present throughout that makes this one so memorable. Plus there are images in the movie that will haunt you for days.

Current Availability: Fairly easy.
Paramount released a great DVD a while back and even included a nice informative John Frankenheimer commentary. Unfortunately, it went out of print very soon after. Fortunately, Criterion have now come to the rescue with a brand spanking new release that contains the very same commentary along with a host of new special features. It's region-locked to the USA, but if you've got a multi-region player (and if not, why not?) then that's not really a problem.

7. Live a Little, Love a Little (1968) by Norman Taurog

Anybody wondering why I've inserted an Elvis movie into this list need only glance at the photo above. We've got Elvis in a shiny cyan suit singing to a dancing girl while a man in a tatty and mildy disturbing dog costume stands behind him, panting. Okay, okay, granted, it's a dream sequence, but still what the hell was Elvis thinking when he signed up for this one?

The plot, such as it is, concerns Greg Nolan, a photographer who's literally swept off his feet by a neurotic girl named Bernice and her violent dog, Albert (played by a real dog you'll be glad to hear - Elvis's own, in fact). For reasons I'm not about to go into here, Greg then loses his job and apartment and Bernice finds him another place to live. Unfortunately the rent's so expensive that he ends up taking two jobs in the same building to pay for it. For the rest of the film we follow Greg as he fends off Bernice while trying to juggle two jobs without either employer learning of the other. Hilarity ensues.

Now it has to be said this is not a good film, although it is odd enough to keep you watching. Just barely. In a clear attempt by the desperate Elvis management to alter a formula that was no longer working, they somehow came up with an adult comedy premise (Look! Elvis actually shares a bed with a woman!) that's not very adult, and not at all funny. And Elvis sings just four songs in the movie and only one of them ('A Little Less Conversation') is any good, which is still a better ratio than most Elvis movies of the same period. And the Bernice character, despite being played by the very sexy Michele Carey, is seriously annoying to the point where you're hoping Elvis will just say, 'The hell with it,' and throttle her with his bare hands. No such luck, however. The Elvis management weren't prepared to screw with the formula that much.

Weirdness Factor: Low.
To be honest, this is not a great deal weirder than most of Elvis' post-Army ouvre, although the very odd dream sequence does distinguish it from the rest of the bland fare. Somebody was definitely on drugs for that one. Also, Elvis seems to be angry all the way through the movie for some reason, not just with Bernice but with almost every other character as well. But then again, it's possible he'd just read his next movie script. 

Current Availability: Easy to find.
All of Elvis's movies, including this one, are readily available on DVD. You have been warned.

6. The Music of Chance (1993) by Philip Haas

Ex-fireman Jim Nashe (Mandy Patinkin) is driving across America on his father's dwindling inheritance when he spots beaten and bloodied professional gambler, Pozzi (James Spader), by the side of the road and offers him a lift. Pozzi accepts and says he was on his way to meet a couple of eccentric millionaires, Flower and Stone, for a poker match and asks Nashe to lend him the $10,000 seed money stolen from him in return for 50% of the profits. Pozzi has seen them play and assures Nashe that they're novices, so Nashe agrees and takes them both to the millionaires' mansion in Pennsylvania. But it soon becomes apparent that Flower and Stone have improved their game and it's not long before Pozzi and Nashe owe them money. With no way of paying them back, Flower and Stone insist the losers work off their debt by constructing an enormous stone wall in their garden...

Based on the novel of the same name by Paul Auster, 'The Music of Chance' is the very definition of strange and existential, which is exactly why I love it so much. After seeing it the first time (on video, if I recall correctly - it had a very limited theatrical release), I was so impressed that I bought the book immediately after and was amazed at how closely the director stuck to the source material. Such a pity then that so few people know about it, as it's a real diamond in the rough.

The meaning of the film can be found in the title, although there are numerous layers to the story for those willing to look. Primarily it's about how one random act can forever alter, and even destroy, lives. Nashe and Pozzi start out the movie as drifters and are brought together by chance only to become slaves to Flower and Stone's peculiar vision, under the malevolent guardianship of groundskeeper Calvin Murks (the great M. Emmet Walsh). As the story progresses, each man is forced to deal with his prospective fate in his own way. The acting all round really is top notch in this one, with Spader playing successfully against type as the seedy Pozzi, and Patinkin superb as the likeable and even-tempered everyman, Nashe. 

Weirdness Factor: High.
'The Music of Chance' is one of those rare movies where those watching it for the first time will have no idea what's going to happen next. There's an underlying sense of dread and mystery throughout the whole thing too, which helps keeps you glued to the screen. Much of the narrative is left unexplained, and the ending, although satisfying, is left fairly open-ended as well. As with 'The Passenger', metaphors and symbolism are rife throughout, so that the meaning of each scene is not always immediately obvious on the first viewing.

Current Availability: Easy to find.
You can pick this up for a song on Amazon, but it's not a particularly great print, and its in full frame too. If ever there was a movie in need of restoration and a little bit of love it's this one - but since that's unlikely to happen anytime soon this budget release will just have to do.