Good morrow, coz. It’s time again to swim around in the nightmarish neural soup of me and my compatriot on The B-Movies Podcast, one Mr. William Bibbiani, as we take a few moments out of our busy schedules to recapitulate on one selected some small detail we had discussed on the previous episode (which was episode #26, for those keeping score). Let us, if you would be so kind, extend our thoughts into you.
On this last episode, we talked about the latest in the deluge of superhero flicks, Captain America: The First Avenger, and spent a brief moment comparing it to director Joe Johnston’s previous effort, the well-beloved but rarely-discussed The Rocketeer from 1991. The Rocketeer occupies a curious position in pop culture lore: an exciting and well-directed art-deco action flick about a fellow flying about in a rocket pack, it was Disney’s attempt at a new film franchise. Despite a good ad campaign, and a pretty good critical reception, it was something of a financial flop when it was first released, and it largely receded from public view by the end of the year. Those of us who saw it as children, however, did love it, and have carried a secret, forbidden love for the little flick ever since those halcyon moviegoing days. 20 years after the fact, The Rocketeer has a devout-yet-modest cult following, and is finally getting a deluxe treatment for Blu-Ray release.
The arc of The Rocketeer inspired Bibbs and I to think of other films that occupy a similar cognitive geography on the pop culture map. That is to say: movie that are well-made and well-beloved, and have no ill-will or critical hatred floating about them, but have, for whatever reason, remained largely forgotten, like Ozymandias, in the swirling sands of time’s desert (if you’ll allow a stuffy poetry allusion). In short, these are the really good movies you remember, but rarely hear discussed in casual conversation, and that haven’t received any kind of grand deluxe home video treatment, despite their goodwill and devout cult. If you know the films, you likely love them, and can nod in satisfied approval. If you don’t know the films, here’s your chance to take up some recommendations.
Here are three that I’ve thought of:
THE SECRET OF NIMH (dir. Don Bluth, 1982)
Based on Robert C. O’Brien’s famous children’s novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (about a group of intelligent, escaped lab animals fighting to survive in the wild), Secret was the first feature-length directorial effort from ex-Disney animator Don Bluth, who had left the tyranny of Mouse-schweitz after arguments on the productions of The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon. His ambition caused him to make something that could compete with Disney’s seeming stranglehold on the feature animation market. The result is a dark, moody and unexpectedly moving animated film, full of real danger, some great voice work (from big names such as Derek Jacobi, Dom DeLuise, and upcoming child actors Wil Wheaton and Shannon Doherty, who went on to famous TV roles), and some of the most beautiful animation this side of the Big Boy. In this age of action-driven, wiggly, sugar-coated CGI clunkers (the works of Pixar notwithstanding), people often like to reminisce when animation was a longer drawn-out, and more detailed art form, when arguably better-looking cell animation was the word of the day. But they rarely bring up Don Bluth’s debut masterpiece, which is, for my money, a much better film than his 1986 hit An American Tail, and is certainly a sight better than whacked-out ‘90s fare like Rock-a-Doodle (which is awesome when you’re high). Next year will be the films’ 30th anniversary. Let’s give it a better home video release, please.
WARLOCK (dir. Steve Miner, 1989)
This is one that is only really discussed with a very particular, specialized circle of horror fans (and, at that, only horror fans of a certain age), but Steve Miner’s time-travel magic-fest is a small, somewhat clunky, and incredibly enjoyable genre gem that is waiting patiently to be re-discovered. It’s one of those slickly-produced horror films that you likely saw on late-night cable, or one of your slumber party video store excursions (when you managed to rent R-rated films to watch after your folks had gone to sleep). That was, indeed, how I discovered it, and, having revisited it several times over the years, I can attest to how well it stands up, and how pleasantly creepy it is. It stars Richard E. Grant as a medieval knight who was accidentally dragged into the present day in pursuit of a wicked, Satan-worshipping warlock (played by the sex-fueled, panther-like Julian Sands in a black body stocking), and the modern gal (Lori Singer) who teams up with him to stop the evil. Yes, the effects are cheesy, even for 1989. Yes, the horror conceits aren’t so much more creative than many films of a similar vintage. But there’s something cracklingly alluring about Warlock that still has the power to compel young genre fans looking for something creative and new. I think it deserves a good home video release.
ANATOMY OF A MURDER (dir. Otto Preminger, 1959)
And now, having covered cult animation and cheesy horror, I’d like to skew a bit classier. Merely taking a look at the cast of Otto Preminger’s 1959 courtroom thriller, you begin to wonder why this is not a better-known classic. It stars James Stewart as a Matlock-like country defense attorney who is charged to defend a murderer, played by Ben Gazzara, who killed the rapist of his floozy wife, played by Lee Remick. The prosecuting attorney is played with the usual gruff glee by the wonderful George C. Scott. What’s more, the film’s score was composed by jazz legend Duke Ellington. The film is stellar in carefully balanced scenes of dialogue, where you can’t tell exactly who is telling how much of the truth, especially Lee Remick, who seems to be using her sluttiness in exactly the wrong ways at exactly the wrong times, to the point where you can’t be sure if it’s an act or not. Stewart plays to his usual aw-shucks purity, so it’s all the more shocking when you hear him discussing the details of a rape (Anatomy of a Murder was notoriously the first film to use terms like “rape,” and “panties” openly). With its high quality, terse direction, and impeccable pedigree, it’s a wonder that Anatomy of a Murder isn’t listed more frequently on top-100 lists. It certainly deserves to be listed alongside any of the great crime dramas. It’s high time The Criterion Collection scooped this one up.
NEXT: Bibbs offers his own picks, including a 1980s action classic, a forgotten anime gem and a whole franchise of fight movies nobody seems to talk about…
Galaxy Quest. Nobody talks about Galaxy Quest, but it’s one of those movies that everyone agrees on if you happen to bring it up. Galaxy Quest rules, and it’s one of a myriad excellent films that many have seen and loved, but don’t bring up as often as Fight Club, The Terminator or even Old School. I wonder why that is. Why exactly is there a distinct line between films that are beloved and films that are both beloved and consistently referenced in popular culture? It’s not that the latter films are always financially successful upon their release (Fight Club, you may remember, was considered a box office bomb). I suspect the latter films tend to resonate more with a culture’s personal experiences, while the former tend to merely be well-executed genre exercises.
My picks, which would have included Galaxy Quest but I’ve just talked about it so why not share the love, are all examples of fine genre material that many have appreciated but aren’t necessarily likely to discuss offhand. It’s important to not let these films fall by the wayside. They’re too good to forget, but too small to remember every single day.
F/X (dir. Robert Mandel, 1986)
Although financially successful, critically appreciated and a former mainstay of network television, Robert Mandel’s superior action thriller F/X seems to have fallen by the wayside of popular culture. That’s a damned shame. This exceptional action film stars Tom Cruise’s Cocktail co-star Bryan Brown as Roland “Rollie” Tyler, a special effects guru hired by the justice department to fake the assassination of a mob informant played by Law & Order’s Jerry Orbach. When the assassination goes down for real, Tyler is suddenly the scapegoat and has to use all of his practical effects magic to evade the police and catch the real bad guys. Spectacular fun from start to finish, director Robert Mandel (who also directed the underrated Tom Berenger action flick The Substitute) utilizes the special effects gimmick in practically every scene, from Tyler’s uncanny makeup work to a thrilling car chase with his assistant, The Legend of Billie Jean’s Martha Gehman, throwing out explosives and fake corpses behind them to elude the authorities. And it all ends in a spectacular shootout that Tyler rigs with trick mirrors.
F/X spawned a lesser but pleasingly ridiculous sequel (subtitled The Deadly Art of Illusion) and a short-lived TV series, and was supposedly being remade by Mandel himself for 2011 but we haven’t heard any news about that in a long while. F/X definitely deserves a Blu-Ray special edition release and a much, much bigger audience.
PERFECT BLUE (dir. Satoshi Kon, 1997)
One of the first Japanimation films (a term I’ve always liked, but that’s just my love for portmanteaus talking) to earn a significant theatrical release in the anime boom of the 1990s, the late Satoshi Kon’s first feature film was for many young cult film enthusiasts their first foray into Japanese animation that didn’t involve monsters or giant robots. It remains one of the finest films I’ve ever seen in the medium, but it never received much attention outside its initial release, a problem which needs to be fixed. Pefect Blue tells the story of a pop singer who tries to segue into an acting career, but finds herself the victim of a murderous stalker. It sounds like Lindsay Lohan material on the surface, but Satoshi Kon’s simply, utterly brilliant direction takes us deeply into his protagonist’s world as her sense of reality completely shatters, and the second half of the film plays cunning tricks on both the heroine and the audience as fantasy, paranoia, fiction and truth interweave until nobody can tell the difference anymore. Perfect Blue works exquisitely both as a psychological thriller and a Bunuel-esque kaleidoscope of surrealism, and although it’s still available on DVD it’s rare to find it at an actual video store. With the director’s recent, tragic and untimely passing, it’s time for Perfect Blue and his (sadly) few other works, each of them classics, to make their way into the popular lexicon. Check out Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika and Paranoia Agent (the latter of which I consider to be one of the great artworks of the last decade) when you’re done with Perfect Blue. You can, and I think will, thank me later.
THE UNDISPUTED FRANCHISE (dirs. Walter Hill and Isaac Florentine, 2002, 2006 and 2010)
I’ve championed this series on The B-Movies Podcast before, most notably upon the death of Peter Falk a few weeks ago. Falk co-starred in the first Undisputed by noted “Man’s Man” director Walter Hill, who also directed such worthy cult classics as The Warriors, The Driver and Southern Comfort. On the surface it’s a fairly standard fight movie, with an underdog prison boxer played by Wesley Snipes getting a shot at greatness – but neither fame nor fortune – when Heavyweight Champion Vin Rhames is sentenced to the same penal facility. But an unusually well rounded cast (comprised of Wes Studi, Fisher Stevens and Michael Rooker, to name a few), combined with an unexpectedly strong script made the film a standout for fight film enthusiasts. I particularly enjoy the way that the underdog fighter is a confessed murderer while the supposed “antagonist” is merely an accused rapist, making it difficult to know who to root for, let alone guess who’s going to win.
But most intriguingly the first film, hardly a box office standout, led to two consistently excellent Straight-to-Video releases from long-time Power Rangers director Isaac Florentine, who branched the series out into Mixed Martial Arts with a little help from new co-star Scott Adkins (The Bourne Ultimatum). The second film, Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, is a bit of a trifle but boasts incredible fight choreography, but it’s the balls-to-the-wall bravado of Undisputed III: Redemption, which cleverly downgrades Adkins from the unstoppable villain to the underdog hero role, that's the real gem. This is a superior action series that nobody seems to talk about, but is in desperate need of a classy boxed set.
WHAT FILMS DO YOU LOVE BUT NEVER GET TO TALK ABOUT?