Tuesday, August 30, 2011

MY FAVORITE MALE COMEDIC PERFORMANCE ON FILM

There are many great performances by sterling comedic male talents throughout the history of the movies. Names like Chaplin, Keaton, Arbuckle, Lloyd, and Marx readily come to mind, as do later 20th century choices like Lewis, Matthau, Lemmon, Martin, Murphy, Murray, Carrey, Carell, or Depp. The list goes on and on and on. But for me, my all-time favorite male comedic turn was by the singular Gene Wilder in the title role in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971).
Original caricature of Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka by Jeff York (copyright 2011)
Funny, even Gene Wilder’s name suggests something riotous, doesn’t it? As if his very DNA spells out his madcap skills. Wilder’s onscreen persona was comedic mostly because it was so unpredictable. He could be as gentle as a lamb one moment and then turn on a dime into a raging lion. His rants were always a little crazy, even a little frightening, but never less than hilarious. And his was a style of acting perfectly suited for the role of that mercurial candy man who could take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew, and cover it with chocolate and a miracle or two.

Gene Wilder gave many marvelous comedic performances in movies like THE PRODUCERS, START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME, BLAZING SADDLES, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, SILVER STREAK, STIR CRAZY and THE WOMAN IN RED. Hell, he was even hilarious in his screen debut in BONNIE & CLYDE playing the undertaker taken hostage. But I think his role as Wonka is the most sparkling gem on that impressive comic resume.

Johnny Depp played the Wonka role in 2005’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY but had to resort to a prim wig, false teeth and a lisping, faux voice to render his eccentric. It only confirmed his predecessor’s superior take on the character as Wilder needed no cosmetics to achieve unconventionality. He was unusual all on his own. And what a contradictory oddball he was as Wonka too, being both the stick and the carrot to his young charges touring his chocolate factory. He coddled them one moment. Then terrified them the next. And watching it all was as funny as hell.
Willy Wonka starts the tour of his chocolate factory.

Of course the kids weren’t Wonka’s only foils in the film. Their parents were just as childish and Wonka enjoyed toying with them too. He immediately recognized that the bad apples didn’t fall far from their trees. Augustus Gloop obviously got his terrible eating habits from his rotund mother. Violet Beauregard was as uncouth as her car salesman father. Veruca Salt was spoiled just like her rich and entitled father. And so on. These ingrates had to be taught some stern lessons in propriety and self-discipline, and Wilder’s Wonka was just the man to do it.

Wilder got to do all sorts of wild and crazy things in the role, from eating a teacup after drinking its tea to expounding dementedly on the virtues of his creations. (“The snozberries taste like snozberries!”) He also gets to recite some of the most acerbic lines in film history. When Augustus falls into the chocolate river and starts to drown his mother frets, “He can’t swim!” to which Wonka dryly replies, “There’s no better time to learn.” Or when he tells them about his gum that chews like a three-course dinner one guest objects with the protest, “Bull.” Wonka calmly quips, “No. Roast beef.” Wilder had a lot to chew on but he wisely threw away most of his lines. Wonka’s withering sarcasm was enough on its own. The reading of the lines didn’t need any underlining.

Wilder was also smart to add the bit where Wonka greets everyone pretending to be a cripple. Wilder reasoned that Wonka would play such a practical joke to be unpredictable from the get-go. It worked wonderfully on his tourists and the movie-going audience. After that, we never knew what to expect from Wilder’s Wonka. And we were continually surprised and  amused by all of his antics.

One of his most hilarious antics occurred during the boat tour scene. The ride quickly turned into a psychedelic head-trip with the vessel’s speed increasing and the factory walls projecting horrific images around everyone, like a chicken being beheaded! Here’s the video clip of that famous scene:
It’s all quite unsettling but hilarious nonetheless because Wonka is clearly f**king with his guests. He’s testing them, determined to find their true character in such a desperate situation. In doing so, Wonka reveals his true character as well. He’s not a wacko at all. He’s a strict moralist, a man of utter integrity looking for a child with a similar resolve. Wilder pulls off that serious side of Wonka brilliantly. He also works wonders with the final emotional scene where he lovingly hands over his factory to the one worthy child - the poor yet noble Charlie Bucket.

Wilder as Wonka makes you cry from laughing and cry by pulling your heartstrings. It's an incredibly nuanced performance. And it's one I never tire of seeing. I’ve seen the movie dozens of times and I always find something new in Wilder’s witty work here. For all those reasons, it’s my favorite comedic turn in a movie.

So tell me, what is your favorite male comedic performance? Share what really tickled your funny bone and sticks in your head. And in the next weeks I will not only share my pick for favorite female comedic performance, but my choices for favorite dramatic male and female performances as well. Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

THE HIGHS & LOWS OF SUMMER


The summer movie season has ended. Honestly though, I think it had its last gasp at the end of July with the release of the ho-hum COWBOYS & ALIENS. That movie, like the entire summer season, was simply uninspired. One of the least beguiling seasons in some time. Best to move on to autumn with its promise of better movies. But as we depart August, here’s my assessment of the summer highs & lows:
Owen Wilson takes Marion Cotillard to a party just after MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.

HIGH: Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS was the summer’s best film - a charming, thoughtful examination of one man’s search for art and truth in a crass and phony world.
LOW: THE GREEN LANTERN was the worst. It was that crass and phony world. 

HIGH: Justin Bateman showed he could play straight man in HORRIBLE BOSSES and Ryan Reynolds in THE CHANGE-UP.
LOW: Ryan Reynolds didn't do Ryan Reynolds nearly as well as Bateman did.
The cast of BRIDESMAIDS, the summer's funniest film.
HIGH: BRIDESMAIDS was a female THE HANGOVER.
LOW: THE HANGOVER 2 was THE HANGOVER. Xeroxed.

HIGH: FAST FIVE opened early to good reviews and made money.
LOW: FRIGHT NIGHT opened late to good reviews and bombed. (Summer fatigue?)

HIGH: BEGINNERS proved less is more.
LOW: PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 4 proved more is less.

HIGH: The all-American hero CAPTAIN AMERICA.
LOW: The all-American Joe LARRY CROWNE.
Elle Fanning is mesmerized (and mesmerizing) in SUPER 8.

HIGH: Steven Spielberg produced the sublime SUPER 8.
LOW: Unfortunately, he also produced the 3rd TRANSFORMERS.

HIGH: Women made hits out of BRIDESMAIDS and THE HELP.
LOW: Hollywood still is making too much for 12-year-olds.

HIGH: Ryan Gosling, the bad boy in CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE.
LOW: Cameron Diaz, too tame in BAD TEACHER.
Rachel Weisz deserves Oscar consideration for THE WHISTLEBLOWER.

HIGH: Rachel Weisz's heartfelt work in THE WHISTLEBLOWER.
LOW: Her husband's phoned-in role in COWBOYS & ALIENS.

HIGH: 2-D.
LOW: 3-D. (But not the price! Still about 5 bucks more a ticket.)


HIGH: THOR. Yay! X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. Yay!
LOW: CONAN THE BARBARIAN. Meh.

HIGH: A star is born, Michael Fassbender. (He played Magneto.)
LOW: Not so fast, Jason Momoa. (He played Conan.)
Brad Pitt marvels at his newborn son in THE TREE OF LIFE.


HIGH: Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE was a beautifully observed movie about life's events, both big and small.
LOW: Sean Penn starred in THE TREE OF LIFE yet dissed it for being confusing. Talk about being small.

HIGH: We'll miss seeing everyone at Hogwarts on the big screen.
LOW: Not the same with those William McKinley High kids. (Those Gleeks are fine on TV, but their concert film was a yawn.)
Rob Brydon cracks himself up in THE TRIP. Steve Coogan, not so much.
HIGH: The intentionally funny documentary THE TRIP.
LOW: The unintentionally funny documentary THE UNDEFEATED. (Sarah Palin takes herself way too seriously.)

Those are my thoughts. What are yours? And please get here soon TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY and WAR HORSE and THE DESCENDANTS and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and THE ARTIST and THE IDES OF MARCH. We need you!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

IS 3-D OVER?


It should be. I think the technique is already a goner. Move over Smell-O-Vision and Sensurround! Make room for one more burial plot in Hollywood’s gimmick graveyard.

This year the average movie released in both 3-D and 2-D is only earning about 40% of its revenue from the 3-D format. 2-D is prevailing throughout the country. Why? What happened? Why has the promise of 3-D become so ho-hum? Why has the format that James Cameron said was the future of film become an also- ran? Simple. It ain’t worth it.
A wonderful example of 3-D depth was showcased in CORALINE (2009)


It started promisingly with the likes of the animated CORALINE (2009). The brilliant stop-motion animator Henry Selick used the 3-D format as beautifully as its ever been employed to add deep focus to his luscious settings for his story of a young girl’s romp through a fantasy world. 
The world of Pandora is brought to life vividly by 3-D in AVATAR (2009)

That same year AVATAR broke all kinds of box office records by rendering its world of Pandora with perhaps the greatest amount of fantastical detail ever created for a film. And the depth and vividness of 3-D made that computer-generated world seem incredibly real. AVATAR also went on to make more money than any film in the history of the movies so studio executives got greedy. Suddenly they were greenlighting 3-D movies left and right. And if they weren't creating them they were converting regular 2-D movies to the expanded format to capitalize on the craze. (And a craze that charged at least 5 bucks more per ticket.) The problem with that, other than utter greed, is that so many films were not special enough for 3-D or had visual landscapes that needed to be seen in 3-D to be fully appreciated. The Selicks and Camerons were few and far between. 
Unfortunately THE GREEN HORNET (2011) was shot in 2-D and converted to 3-D afterwards.

One needs only look at this year's ho-hum 3-D releases to realize that the technique has become nothing more than a moneymaking gimmick. There was no good reason that 2-D films like THE GREEN HORNET or Justin Bieber’s concert movie or DRIVE ANGRY were converted and then shown in theaters in the 3-D format. And more often than not it's schlocky horror movies that seem to be getting the lion's share of 3-D releases.  Perhaps some find it charming seeing eyeballs pop out of a head and travel into the audience but I don’t think that justifies the technique.

In addition to the justification issue, there are downsides to the 3-D format that are infuriating more and more audiences as well. Most films lose a level of brightness due to the 3-D effects. And another level of it is lost due to the cumbersome dark 3-D glasses. See for yourself next time you shell out your hard-earned dough. As the 3-D movie starts, take off the glasses and look at the screen. Sure it will be blurry but it will also appear a helluva lot brighter. Then when you put your 3-D glasses back on it will be akin to wearing sunglasses in a darkened theater. That may work for Jack Nicholson but few else. 
FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) is being released in 2-D and 3-D
Unfortunately all of this has rendered 3-D either boring, inappropriate or worst of all, ordinary. Yet despite all these problems, Hollywood has already made dozens and dozens of 3-D pictures just waiting to be released. (One of them, FRIGHT NIGHT opens this weekend. And was it necessary to make this in 3-D? I'll bet not.)  And most of the films will not be worthy of the technique or warrant the inflated ticket price. But Hollywood always tries to do more with less. In the 1950’s the small screen (TV) became a huge competitor to the big screen, so Hollywood super-sized its cinema screens and gave them ridiculous, over-the-top names like “CinemaScope” and “Cinerama” and “VistaVision.” But audiences quickly caught on and realized that no matter how wide you made the screen, a bad movie is still a bad movie, not an event. Thus, those ginormous screens were done away with. 
William Castle knew a good gimmick when he created one like "Percepto" for his horror movie THE TINGLER (1959)
There have been other attempts at schlocky gimmicks throughout the years to enhance the movie-going experience. Producer William Castle practically made it into a cottage industry in the 50’s and 60’s with the advent of silly gizmos like “Percepto." They were little vibrators attached to movie theater seats to give audiences little shocks during certain key scares in his horror film THE TINGLER.
Divine is about to taste something the audience was lucky to only smell in PINK FLAMINGOS (1972)
Then there was the infamous ‘Smell-O-Vision’ idea where certain smells were released during screenings to correspond with onscreen locations. Then “Odorama” cards hit theaters. They were ‘scratch & sniff’ cards you’d scuff during key moments to release the appropriate fragrance. This gimmick reached its nadir when John Waters created his over-the-top cards for the release of his cult classic PINK FLAMINGOS in 1972. In that flick, Divine followed around a dog until it pooped and then she sampled his fresh, steaming creation. Waters had fun by matching one of his card's squares with that scene so everyone in the audience could experience Divine's fecal morsel.  Mmm, pass the popcorn.

Then in the early 70’s, to exploit the disaster movie craze, a new sound system was put into select theaters designed to enhance the cinematic experience via stereophonic sound. Sensurround was paired with films like EARTHQUAKE (1974) to make you feel like you were in the actual earthquake yourself. What the deafening technique really achieved was making hundreds of people feel like they were in a really crummy movie with speaker-popping, eardrum-splitting noise.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010) brilliantly utilized the 3-D technique. Most 3-D movies do not.

3-D isn’t as bad as that, but in this economy I’m not sure audiences need any more reason to shun the ploy other than it's just not worth it. If they made more movies like HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON that brilliantly exploited the 3-D technique to give audience members a genuine feeling of dragon flight, well, that would be one thing. But too often it’s merely used for trifles like another sequel to SAW. Do we really need to see bowels and intestines burst out of the screen? Is that a good use of 3-D technology?

But you can’t keep a good gimmick down in Hollywood. This weekend SPY KIDS 4 opens. Not only is it in 3-D, it’s also in 4-D, a technique they're calling “Aroma-Scope.” It's a riff on John Waters' scratch & sniff cards. Let’s just hope there are no wayward pooches in the movie.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

THE BEST DECADE EVER FOR FILM


Washington is filled with scandal. America is still mired in an unpopular war. The jobless rates are sky-high, plagued by a brutal recession. And the Presidency of the United States is ridiculed on a daily basis. Modern times? No, that was the Seventies. There are many parallels between the crises confronting the nation then and now. Unfortunately, the reaction to all this from Hollywood couldn’t be more opposite from that decade to this one. 
Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, about to stick his nose where it doesn't belong, in CHINATOWN (1974)

In the 1970’s, Watergate, Viet Nam, the crap economy and Tricky Dick helped influence the celluloid dream makers to make some of the most daring, socially conscious and political cinema in the history of movies. The product coming out then was absolutely startling. No matter what the genre there was a raised consciousness to it. It was as if the filmmakers took on the decade as a call to arms and vowed to create films that were smarter, more important, and with a lot to say about the world they lived in. Many people, me included, think that the decade of films in the Seventies was the greatest of all time. For many, even the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1930’s couldn’t hold a candle to the collection of movies that came out of the town during that Watergate/Viet Nam/Nixon era. Doubt me? Consider this list of classics, all made in a ten-year period:

PATTON (1970)
M*A*S*H (1970)
FIVE EASY PIECES (1970)
THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)
THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971)
KLUTE (1971)
McCABE & MRS. MILLER (1971)
DIRTY HARRY (1971)
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (1971)
THE GODFATHER (1972)
CABARET (1972)
DELIVERANCE (1972)
THE CANDIDATE (1972)
SOUNDER (1972)
LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1973)
THE STING (1973)
MEAN STREETS (1973)
AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973)
SERPICO (1973)
SLEEPER (1973)
THE WAY WE WERE (1973)
ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)
DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)
THE EXORCIST (1973)
THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1973)
CHINATOWN (1974)
THE GODFATHER PART II (1974)
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)
LENNY (1974)
BLAZING SADDLES (1974)
THE CONVERSATION (1974)
ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974)
MONTY PYTHON & THE HOLY GRAIL (1974)
SHAMPOO (1975)
THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975)
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)
JAWS (1975)
NASHVILLE (1975)
DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)
NETWORK (1976)
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
ROCKY (1976)
TAXI DRIVER (1976)
CARRIE (1976)
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)
STAR WARS (1977)
ANNIE HALL (1977)
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977)
JULIA (1977)
THE DEER HUNTER (1978)
COMING HOME (1978)
ANIMAL HOUSE (1978)
HALLOWEEN (1978)
MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978)
APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
ALIEN (1979)
ALL THAT JAZZ (1979)
KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979)
MANHATTAN (1979)
NORMA RAE (1979)
BEING THERE (1979)
Liza Minnelli performs in the spotlight as Sally Bowles in CABARET (1972)

And I haven’t even listed all of the great movies that came out then. There were many more that space wouldn't allow me to include. Plus, those were just the American releases. The world cinema introduced audiences to films like THE CONFORMIST, CRIES & WHISPERS, AGUIRRE THE WRATH OF GOD, DAY FOR NIGHT, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, AMARCORD, THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE, THE GARDEN OF FINZI CONTINI, SEVEN BEAUTIES and THE LAST WAVE. Damn.

In 2011, after all that’s happened in the last few years what with the Wall Street meltdown, the global economic cratering, the surge in Afghanistan, the Tea Party, the controversies between Obama and the GOP, the Arab spring, what do we get? Two TRANSFORMERS movies in three years. To paraphrase Howard Beale from NETWORK, “I’m as mad as hell!”
Peter Finch goes mad as Howard Beale in NETWORK (1976)
 Last year was a very good year for some edgier fare with films like THE SOCIAL NETWORK, BLACK SWAN and THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT reflecting our turbulent times and contending for Best Picture. But where's that kind of fare this year? Heck, I'm not even sure we have films that are just entertaining enough to be on this year's Best Picture list. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS will make the list, but what else? In a year of social and worldwide upheaval most films are going in the opposite direction. Too much so. Rather than socially directed entertainments we seem to be getting an awful lot of robots and aliens. (Stress on the word awful.) I worry that the Academy will not be able to justify five Best Picture nominees, let alone ten.
Gene Wilder starts the tour in WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971)


Now, there is nothing wrong with popcorn entertainment, but too often these days Hollywood seems only interested in that. The studios want huge tent pole movies or franchises that spawn multiple sequels,  to get all the 10-year-old boys in the audience to buy tickets again and again. But consider the fact that in 1971 a social satire like WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY was released as a kid’s picture and you’ll understand why I’m so miffed. Anyone want to put SPY KIDS 4 up against that Gene Wilder classic? Didn’t think so.

Hollywood needs to have another decade like the 70’s. They need to make fewer fantasy films and more movies that say something significant about the times we live in. Pictures like ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and THE HURT LOCKER should be the norm, not the exception. The 70’s proved that movies can comment on society, be crackling entertainment, and yes, still make money. As a movie fan, I’d love to have difficulty today choosing the Oscar for Best Picture like voters did in the year 1976 when they had to pick the best from these sterling nominees: ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, BOUND FOR GLORY, NETWORK, ROCKY and TAXI DRIVER. I would have chosen NETWORK. And I would have been as happy as hell.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

THIS IS THE CARICATURE I DID FOR MY OSCAR POOL WINNER!


Original caricature of The Beatles by Jeff York (copyright 2011)
 I know, I know...

It's really late. The Oscars were months ago. But this is the caricature that I did for John Barry, the winner of The Establishing Shot's Oscar predictions contest. He is the biggest Beatles fan and expert I have ever met. As well as a helluva guy. And I wanted to share his 'prize' with the rest of you. I hope you love it, yeah, yeah, yeah.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

10 MUST-SEE MOVIES YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF

Tired of this summer’s movie fare? Desperately seeking something that isn’t chock full of robots? Needing something more stimulating than another fart joke in a Jason Bateman comedy? Well, grab the DVD’s of these films you probably never heard of (or stream them on Netflix if you're willing to pay that extra fee) and I promise you’ll be thoroughly entertained. You might also be a little shocked that somehow you've gone this long without catching these worthy cinematic gems.

GATTACA (1997)
If all the summer glop has turned your brain to mush these past months, check out this intellectually stimulating sci-fi thriller. In the not-too-distant future, a man with genetic flaws fights against the system that deems him unsuitable for space flight. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) assumes the identity of Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a perfect genetic specimen who has become a paraplegic as a result of a car accident. Vincent and Jerome buck the system that discriminates against the ‘have-nots’ but when the space program’s director is killed, police start questioning every cadet, jeopardizing Vincent’s secret. It is a marvelously taut piece that says a lot about our current world just as all great science fiction does. Writer/director Andrew Niccol’s film plays like a two-hour TWILIGHT ZONE episode with smart performances (including a sly Uma Thurman), sumptuous production values and an exquisitely haunting score by Michael Nyman. 
Q & A (1990)
The great director Sidney Lumet was lauded for so many films, but sadly, this suspenseful crime story was one of those egregiously overlooked. A young DA (Timothy Hutton) tries to nail a corrupt detective (Nick Nolte) but ends up opening a can of worms that brings his former lover and her new boyfriend, a crime boss (Armand Assante) into the investigation. This film was filmed on location in Lumet’s beloved New York and it has twice as much grit as any LAW & ORDER episode. As always, Lumet fills out his cast with great character actors including veteran performers Patrick O’Neal, Luis Guzman, Lee Richardson and the invaluable Fyvush Finkel. It’s a tragedy that this film was ignored upon its initial release. And tell me that both Nolte and Assante didn’t deserve Oscar nominations. (Believe me, they did.)
LOVELY & AMAZING (2001)
Looking for a movie starring women that isn’t some bubble-headed rom-com romp? Check out this character-driven comedy about family and women’s self-esteem. A mother (Brenda Blethyn) and her three confused daughters (Catherine Keener, Emily Mortimer, and Raven Goodwin) struggle to understand each other and their own image issues. It’s a challenging movie about being self-aware and learning to love your flaws as well as those in others. It also has one of the most daring and uproarious scenes ever committed to celluloid where Mortimer asks her boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney) to critique her nude body, no holds barred. Writer/director Nicole Holofcener should be given money every year to make movies as clever and gutsy as this one. 
EXECUTIVE SUITE (1954)
Angry at the Wall Street bailouts? Boy, do I have a movie for you. EXECUTIVE SUITE was penned by the brilliant Ernest Lehmann and directed starkly by Robert Wise. In this taut boardroom thriller, a president of a furniture company has died and his various underlings jockey, coerce, scheme and kvetch as they plot to become his successor. There are great debates here over art vs. commerce, the elite vs. the working class, and loyalty vs. expediency. And this dissertation on the American dream stars William Holden, Frederic March, Barbara Stanwyck, Louis Calhern, June Allyson, Walter Pidgeon, William Bendix, Shelly Winters, and the deliciously wry Nina Foch. She plays the executive secretary with an arched eyebrow that says more than most actors do with pages of dialogue. See it, laugh at it, and then cry yourself to sleep as this film proves precious little has changed in the business world these past fifty years.


THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007)
I thought this film was the best of that calendar year. Critics loved it too. Audiences? Not so much. They stayed away in droves. Perhaps the western is really dead. Maybe the title was just too damn long. It also kind of gives away the ending, I suppose. But there’s so much more to the movie after James’ death. This fascinating true story is also an incredibly timely dissertation on celebrity. We love to build up our heroes and then delight in tearing them down even more. Casey Affleck has the same eerie weirdness of a young Tony Perkins here as the teenage Ford who joins the gang of his idol James (a superb Brad Pitt) yet gradually grows to resent his boss’ fame and status. 
SNEAKERS (1992)
One of the great, underrated comedies, SNEAKERS sneaks up on you. It’s very low-key, and breezy, and yet still really funny. The story concerns a group of quirky surveillance experts led by Robert Redford, who take on an assignment to steal a computer decoder for the government. Once that mission is accomplished, Redford ends up being taken hostage, colleagues are murdered, and the team must hide underground to solve the mystery of the government’s ‘too many secrets.’ With a supporting team of Sidney Poitier, Ben Kingsley, Dan Aykroyd, Mary McDonnell, River Phoenix and David Strathairn, how is it that this film remained a secret to anyone?



THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (2005)
Gretchen Mol currently stars in BOARDWALK EMPIRE on HBO. She’s often naked there, both physically and emotionally. She’s the same here, and her performance as Bettie Page is both titillating and moving. This is a sweet-hearted character study charting Bettie’s life in a small town all the way to the pages of Playboy and beyond. Beyond being some of the strangest underground bondage films ever produced during the conservative Eisenhower era of the 50’s. Because of her va-va-va-voom bod and those famous black bangs, she became the most photographed woman of the time period. Watch this affecting biopic and you’ll see that all the attention showered on this sweet and alluring woman was well worth it then and now.
TALK TO HER (2002)
This is the most original movie I have ever seen. Written and directed by my favorite filmmaker Pedro Almodovar of Spain, it’s a love story concerning two men and the women they love. What makes it so unique is that both women are in comas. And as they encounter each other at the hospital, the two men (Javier Camara and Dario Grandinetti) strike up a friendship that is at times funny and poignant and ends in tragedy. It is a three-way love story between three challenged couplings and it has more to say about love than any other movie in the last 30 years. Almodovar won the Oscar that year for his screenwriting and you’ll see why.

GALAXY QUEST (1999)
I’m going to Wizard World next week. (That’s Chicago’s version of the San Diego ComicCon.) And every time I go I am reminded of this outstanding farce about fan boys and the sci-fi TV shows they adore. The plot here concerns the alumni cast of a cult space TV show being forced into playing their roles as the real thing when an alien race needs their help. It pimps STAR TREK, comic books, celebrity and teen angst. See it and you will be laughing from the first moment to the last. It stars Tim Allen as the Shatner-esque lead, Sigourney Weaver as the dishy babe, and the ever-droll Alan Rickman as the Spock-inspired second-in-command. As you can see in the poster, he wears an alien skullcap and one of the great conceits of the movie is that we never see Rickman without it. He just is the character here, looking forever like his role - just like all the fan boys would want him to be!
THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006)
I remember during the 2007 Oscars being mad that this film beat out PAN’S LABYRINTH for Best Foreign Language Film. Then I went and saw it. The Academy got it right. This is easily one of the best foreign films of all time. It takes place in a 1984 East Berlin, and an agent of the secret police (a heartbreaking performance by the late Ulrich Muhe) conducts surveillance on a left-leaning writer and his lover. But as he burrows deeper into their lives, he finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed by these two and their political leanings. If you’ve overdosed on frenetic thrillers like BOURNE and anything starring Jason Statham, you owe yourself a night’s rental of this superior suspense tale. 

A good friend of mine, and a fan of this blog, finds so much of what's coming out of Hollywood these days to be utterly depressing. Too many explosions, too many endless car chases, too many paper thin characters. But now I’ve given her and you 10 unknown gems to rent or stream. I truly believe you'll find them well worth your while. And there's not a robot in any of 'em!

Oh, and before I go, tell me what unknown gems you'd recommend to followers here. Share your endorsements and we’ll all be better for it.