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.

1 comment:

  1. Jason, thanks so much for the SINNER review! It has made the "Quote of the Week" on my blog today: The casting of SINNER was not quite so lackadaisical as you have stated, but most of the cast were indeed non-professionals or barely professionals. Frank Zappa wrote not only the title tune (I don't believe he sings on it, however) but the score as well; it was his first big professional gig. Anyway, thanks again! - Marisa of The Timothy Carey Experience