Archive for the ‘The Vault’ Category

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Sorcerer (1977)

D.  William Friedkin

Starring:  Roy Scheider

It was the Summer of 1977 and a movie came out that changed my life and the life of so may others.  That movie was Star Wars.  Lucas’ prequels have somewhat tarnished the legacy of the original trilogy but I will always love those movies for what they meant to me as a young child, getting to see all of them with my Dad who loved cinema as much as I do.  God only knows what JJ Abrams has up his bloody sleeve for the recently announced sequel trilogy but I do I’ll be there to see them.

But I’m not here to talk about that venerable franchise.  I’m here to bring to light a movie that came out about a month later, a movie that drowned under the massive tidal wave created by audiences flocking to the theater to see the beloved space opera time and time again.  This film was ignored by audiences, dismissed by critics, and quickly faded into obscurity.

The film was a remake of the French classic Wages of Fear, itself based on a novel.  Directed by William Friedkin, the thriller was set in the jungles of  South America.  It told the tale of 4 desperate men, exiles of a sort, hiding out and waiting for a chance to elevate their positions, to reclaim some aspect of their former lives.  The men volunteer to transport old dynamite, precious but highly volatile cargo, over two hundred miles through treacherous terrain.  The dynamite is necessary to extinguish an oil field fire but it can only arrive by truck and is highly unstable. It’s a high-risk proposition with a hefty reward.  It’s a near suicide mission.  It’s their last hope.

The film starred Roy Scheider who had previously worked with the director on The French Connection.  He was fresh off the success of Jaws but he was miles away in character from his heroic Chief Brody.  All of the players were on point.  Each man is on the journey for a reason.  Each desperate for reward.  Each knows they may not survive.  Each of them do not care because they have nothing else, no other choice.  They’d rather die by fire than waste away in exile.

The film was brilliantly filmed.  Friedkin made excellent use of his shooting locales.  He conveyed the squalor of the village in which the men have taken refuge.  He showed the danger in the jungle through which the men travel.  There is a set piece on a bridge, a perilous trek as a truck creeps across old wooden planks.  There is more tension in these ten minutes, I think, than in any other movie I’ve ever seen.

The film featured the first soundtrack by German electronic band Tangerine Dream.  It launched their careers and they went on to create some of the most memorable film music of all time.  The score fits the film perfectly.  One would not work without the other.

The film was spectacular.   But nobody knew it.  It was gone as quickly and as quietly as it arrived.  The dismal box office caused the studio and the director to part ways.  But Friedkin always believed in the film.  He never stopped believing.

The film popped up on cable from time to time and was finally released to the home video market in 1990 on VHS and Laserdisc.  Eight years later, it would appear on DVD.  It was a truly terrible product, copied over poorly from the laserdisc in the wrong aspect ration.  There were not many options by which to see the film.

Friedkin eventually sued the studios over the rights to the films as they were making no positive steps to release it on the new popular Blu-ray format.  The case was eventually dropped and Friedkin was given control over a fully restored theatrical and Blu-ray release.  And finally, 37 years later, it has arrived in the best possible format.  It is available to you.  It is waiting.

If you’ve already seen the film, I’m preaching to the choir.  If you haven’t, you don’t know what you’re missing.

But you should probably find out.

 

Every once in a while, I’ll open up the vault to pull out a forgotten treasure or an underappreciated gem

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Ravenous

Directed by:  Antonia Bird

Starring:  Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Jones, David Arquette

This utterly delightful black comedy/horror thriller had a troubled production with a small budget, a director change weeks into shooting, and alleged constant script rewrites.  In March 1999, it landed with a thud in theaters and was met with disdain by critics and disinterest by movie audiences making barely over 2 million dollars, classifying it firmly as a box office turkey.  Oddly, one of the film’s few defenders was the late, great Roger Ebert (a notorious detractor of modern horror) who lauded the film’s visual style and clever dialogue.  Perhaps not so oddly, one of the film’s few attendees was myself who saw it opening weekend.

I’ve probably seen it a dozen times since.  I’m not sure why I keep coming back to it.  It’s certainly no masterpiece.  But it is unique.  There’s a darkly funny grittiness to it that I just find appealing which probably says as much about me as it does about the film. When I watched it again to prepare for this, I noticed that the film’s setup is remarkably similar to that of the classic western Dances With Wolves.  An American soldier wounded in battle is recognized for bravery (under dubious circumstances) and rewarded with a new post in the burgeoning West.

Here, Lt. John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is fully aware that his ‘reward’ is actually an exile to a remote military outpost in the Sierra Nevadas of California.  Likewise, his superior knows that the only way Boyd was able to advance beyond enemy line in this battle of the Mexican-American War was to feign death while his comrades fell around him.  Thrown into the enemy camp, fellow soldier’s dead bodies stacked upon him, he frees himself and tries to escape.  Stumbling upon the opposing force’s leader and subduing him in the process, he becomes a paper hero and is promoted to the rank of Captain.

Glory fades when he arrives at his new post of Fort Spencer which is occupied by a ragtag gang of similar rejects led by the genial, rotund Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones).  Boyd is just settling into his role as the third-in-command when a stranger arrives in camp.  Mr. Calqhon (Robert Carlyle) spins a tale of a wagon train gone awry, stranded and forced to eat the dead.  Calqhon abandoned the few survivors who remained fearful that he would be the next to fall to the cannibalistic hunger of the group’s guide, Colonel Ives.

When Hart hears of the survivors, he’s determined to free them from the clutches of the crazed Colonel and sets out, along with Boyd and a few other of the camp’s crew, to find the campsite.  When the men of Fort Spencer arrive, they encounter much more than they could have ever expected.

Director Bird didn’t helm a lot of features before this one and she’s worked exclusively in television since but considering she inherited the role and faced a lot of studio interference she did a great job.  She makes great use of the landscape of the Czech Republic where the film was primarily shot.  Everything just looks dirty, snowy and wet.  Everyone looks smelly and miserable.  She really sells Fort Spencer as quite possibly the last place anyone would want to be.

She also did a great job with the cast.  Robert Carlyle, an underrated actor IMHO, brings a quiet desperation to the character of Calqhon, shell-shocked by the events he’s witnessed.  His portrayal develops as we discover more about the character who may not be sharing everything he knows.  Most miraculously, she squeezes a great performance from the usually leaden Pearce, who starts as a coward before becoming a survivor and ultimately the hero exhibiting the bravery and sacrifice for which he was falsely commended.

Finally, one cannot speak of this movie without addressing the stellar score by Blur frontman Damon Alban and British composer Michael Nyman.  A lot of fans of movie music feel the best scores tend to fade into the background and should serve to enhance what the viewer is seeing. They should not become so noticeable that they obscure the film.  The score to this movie is noticeable though and at time seems discordant to the movie itself.  And yet somehow, it works.  It’s really good.  I wish I had it on CD but it is way ‘out of print’ and almost impossible to find reasonably priced on the secondary market.  I’ll keep looking though.  It’ll be worth the hunt.

Ravenous is available on DVD and Amazon Instant Video.

Every once in a while, I’ll open up the vault to pull out a forgotten treasure or an underappreciated gem

Angus

Director:  Patrick Read Johnson

Starring:  Charlie Talbert, George C Scott, Kathy Bates, Ariana Richards, James Van Der Beek

This charming little teen comedy dropped in early fall 1995 with very little fanfare and left theaters just as quietly.  And that is a shame because contained within it’s compact 90 minute running time is a truly delightful film.

Granted, there’s nothing spectacularly original here.  Charlie Talbert, in his film debut, plays the title character.  He’s an overweight, brainy freshman who’s been tormented for years by the most popular guy in school, the good-looking Dawson-like captain of the football team.  The fact that Angus, who plays on the offensive line of that same team, protects that quarterback, allowing him the chance to shine, is lost on the fans.  Don’t they realize that championships are won by the defensive and offensive lines?

Anyway, Talbert has appeared in minor roles since and that Dawson-like captain, who was appearing in his first movie as well, went on to play Dawson himself.  Yes, James Van Der Beek plays a straight up asshole here.  Talbert shouldn’t feel too bad, though.  It’s not like The Beek has had a stellar career.

But I digress.

Like I was saying, Angus is a science whiz and a fat kid.  So, according to the high school hierarchy, he’s doomed.  It doesn’t help that he’s been in love with the Van Der Beek’s girlfriend, a pretty cheerleader played by Ariana Richards, since pre-school.  His occasional awkward attempts at communication with the young beauty only open him up to further ridicule by the jock and his cronies. 

But things are looking up for our hero.  His best friend is the only person in school more socially inept than he is. His mom and grandfather, played by Oscar winners Kathy Bates and George C Scott, are very supportive of both his athletic and scholarly pursuits.  And, if he nails his science project, he’s got a chance at getting into a magnet school where he will no longer be exposed to the puerile and childish antics of his peers.

I’d tell you more but I want you to watch the movie.  I mean, it won’t change your life but it will make you feel pretty good.  Angus is a very likable guy.  His family is great.  His friend is loyal and flawed.  The cheerleader turns out to be a rather worthwhile object of his affections.  Van Der Beek is still a cock but that’s to be expected.

Bonus points are awarded for one of the best opening title songs I’ve ever heard in a movie.  Love Spit Love ‘s “Am I Wrong” is mixed with a high-school marching band playing over the football game that begins the action.  It’s a stirring song and gets you in the mood for a good flick.  Who is Love Spit Love, you ask?  I don’t know.  I just like the song.

Angus is not available at retail but can be purchased on demand through Warner Archives  and at Amazon on DVD or Instant Video.

Every once in a while, I’ll open up the vault to pull out a forgotten treasure or an underappreciated gem

The Legend of Billie Jean (1985)

Director: Matthew Robbins

Starring: Helen Slater, Christian Slater, Peter Coyote, Yeardley Smith, Dean Stockwell

If you, like me, are from Corpus Christi, Texas then you know exactly why this movie is such a treasure.

If, in the more likely case, you’ve never heard of this fine 80’s gem, pull up a chair, throw on a jean jacket and allow me to expound on the many virtues on display in this criminally forgotten classic.

Helen Slater stars as the titular Billie Jean Davy, a lovely teenager growing up in a trailer park in Corpus Christi, the sparkling city by the sea and frequent target of hurricanes. She lives there with her brother, Binx, who is played by Christian Slater (no relation to Ms. Slater.) They spend their summer days riding around on Binx’s (such a stupid name) moped and swimming in a nearby waterhole.

At the swimming hole. NICE!

On just such an occassion, the siblings encounter a pack of nogoodniks whose advances were previously rejected at the Sonic Drive-In (Seriously, this movie is dripping in good old-fashioned Texas white trash.) Sexually frustrated by the virginal Billie Jean, the punks commandeer Binx’s moped and cause literally dozen’s of dollars of damage to it. I’m pretty sure you could buy a IPad for how much that POS probably cost.

Anyway, we are talking 80’s dollars here so that was a chunk of change and the Davy’s are dead set on getting recompense. To wit, they go to the thriving beach side souvenir store run by the father of the leader of the punks. The dad is an oily kind of dude but surely young Billie Jean has no reason to suspect ulterior motives when he invites her upstairs. Never mind the fact he’s got a murder van parked out back. Anyway, he offers up a proposal of an…indecent nature which she politely refuses because she’s already banging her volleyball coach.

MEANWHILE…Binx, doomed to a lifetime of idiocy by his name and the fact that he’s being played by Christian Slater, is downstairs rifling behind the counter like any normal person would do in the same situation. He finds a gun, Billie Jean comes racing down the stairs because she’s conflicted by her love for the oily daddy, teenage punk son walks in, there’s a whole Reservoir Dogs kinda thing, and the dad goes down from a grazing gunshot wound while our heroes go on the run.

Binx. Whatta douche.

If it sound’s like I’m making fun of the movie…well, I kind of am. But it’s out of love. It’s like that rich cousin you have who you might save from a vicious dog if someone else were watching. Might. Depends on how far away you are. Or how big the dog is.

It’s harmless fun filled with overwrought acting and it proudly bears one of those ridiculous plots where if someone just stopped for one second and said, “Hold on! Maybe we should just logically explain what’s going on and everyone will see we were in the right!” then there would be no movie. But no, Binx just grabs a gun and it all goes tits up which is why it’s great.

As I alluded to earlier, the film gets bonus points for being filmed in my hometown. More bonus points for featuring Peter Coyote of E.T fame, Yeardley Smith of Lisa Simpson fame, and a pre-Quantum Leap Dean Stockwell. There’s a whole teenage rebellion thing going on here with an out-of-left-field homage to Joan of Arc. The wicked good soundtrack features a killer title tune offered up by Pat Benatar who needed the money.

But all that goodness pales in comparison to the ultimate goodness. Inspired by Ms. of Arc, Billie Jean cuts her hair short to resemble the martyr. She dons a scuba top with cut-off sleeves, fingerless gloves, dangly earrings, and heavy eyeshadow. She’s steps from the shadows in the backyard of the mansion where her merry band of criminals have take refuge. Filmed by the young man who lives in the mansion and who has fallen in love with her, she professes her innocence and declares her intentions to continue her holy war until the oily man has met her demands. ‘We didn’t start this,’ she says defiantly,’but we are going to finish it. Fair is fair. Fair is fair!’

Yes indeed, Billie Jean. Fair is fair. Fair is fair.

Fair is fair!

Even more bonus points: When Smith’s character, Putter (another stupid name), is taken into custody after boldly sacrificing herself for her best friend, her mother comes storming into the jailhouse and promptly slaps her wayward teen. The mother is played by Janet Smalley in her only film role. Ms. Smalley, as I knew her, played piano for my junior high school choir.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Who would ever admit they were in choir?

Moving on.

The Legend of Billie Jean is not widely available on DVD or Blu-ray but can be purchased from Warner Brothers Archive for a more than reasonable price.

Every once in a while, I’ll open up the vault to pull out a forgotten treasure or an underappreciated gem

Three O’Clock High (1987)

Director: Phil Joanau

Starring: Casey Siemaszko, Richard Tyson, Jeffrey Tambor, Philip Baker Hall

This is a great late 80’s high school set comedy that became lost in the wide shadow cast by the John Hughes triumvirate of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Please don’t take that as a slight towards Hughes’ great body of work. I happen to love all three of those films and Bueller rests quite comfortably in my top 5 favorites of all time.

That said, I think anybody would be doing themselves a great disservice if they considered Three O’Clock High as just another high school romp. I first discovered it while in college. It was recommended to me by a roommate and I was immediately taken upon seeing it. All the tropes of your typical high school comedy are here but none of the characters are half as cool as any to be found in a Hughes films. And that’s a good thing. No one could ever be as bad-ass or infallible as Ferris. No one was ever strictly a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess or a criminal. The characters here are more layered. More real. More like you and me. It’s a high school experience that more closely mirrors real life. As such, the comedy is not over the top and more subtle and there’s a very real menace that hangs in the air. Just like high school.

Casey Siemaszko (before he went on to get shot up in Young Guns) as Jerry Mitchell wakes up on a typical morning to drive him and his younger sister to their typical school in his POS car. Rumors are swirling of a new arrival on the steps of their hallowed hall of education. Buddy Revell (played to terrifying perfection by Richard Tyson who would go on to terrorize that kid in Kindegarten Cop) has left a trail of broken bodies behind him at his previous schools and Jerry, who works for the school newspaper, is given the unenviable task of interviewing the bully for an article. Before 1st Period is even over, Jerry has run afoul of Buddy by committing the cardinal sin of touching him. Buddy challenges our hero to a fight after school and Jerry spends the rest of the film trying to devise some way to thwart the certain bloody beating that awaits him.

Remember. When in doubt, a bro-hug can’t go wrong

To say much more, would ruin the many twists and turns Jerry’s story takes before that end-of-school bell.

Since my initial viewing, I’ve probably seen this flick a dozen times. I shared it with some good friends five years back and was thrilled when they enjoyed it as well. When I finally had the chance to appropriately bust it out for our movie group, it was accepted with open arms.

It’s always a good feeling when people genuinely like something that you introduced to them. I hope you like this movie.

But I’ll live if you don’t.

Three O’Clock High is available on Netflix Instant Streaming.