Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Hidden Gems

Many of my posts have served as previews of promising times ahead, so I'm going to focus on the good times that have passed.  With the multitude of films that are released each year, it is inevitable that some of them fail to show up on your radar or linger in the shadow of the blockbusters before falling between the cracks. 
Some are forgotten about and some never find a place in your consciousness in the first place.  You could call them hidden gems, the films that time forgot, underrated classics, whatever you like.  There'll always be something out there that you haven't seen that holds a special place in the heart of the person who'll unreservedly recommend it to you.  Sometimes you'll wish that person had reserved their recommendation, but that's movies for you - forever dividing opinion.  If you're already familiar with those that I mention, great, I'm glad.  Many won't be.  Also, my taste is very eclectic, as I'd imagine would be the case for most film fanatics, so I'm sorry if my selection isn't for everyone.

To start with, I'll cover some that you may have missed as recently as last year.  Short Term 12 impressed me last year.  It tells the story of a supervisory care worker at a treatment facility for troubled teens, played by Brie Larsson, hiding her own troubles from the past and present.  There's uplifting drama, played out with a range of fleshed-out characters, balanced perfectly with tragedy and heartbreak.  However, if you want a film without any sadness whatsoever, another that didn’t get the recognition it deserved last year was The Way Way Back; a very enjoyable, feel-good, summer-set coming-of-age comedy drama.  It's about a shy teenager spending the summer at his mother's boyfriend's holiday home in a seaside town, and it reminded me of the kind of film I would have watched growing up in the eighties.  Other films that grabbed my attention last year included the extraordinarily vague Upstream Color, which left much open to interpretation, and Neil Jordan's engaging vampire drama, Byzantium, starring Saorise Ronan and Gemma Arterton.  But, that was last year, and there's still time for these films to get noticed (even Blade Runner and Shawshank Redemption were flops at the cinema when they were released).

For another lesser-known film featuring the nocturnal undead of the fanged variety, you could look back to 1987 and find Kathryn Bigelow's directorial debut, Near Dark.  The word vampire is never used and the mythology remains vague, as it's not established whether they are vulnerable to the usual threats such as garlic, holy water and so on.  What is clear is that they are immortal, dependant upon blood for sustenance and definitely keep 'odd hours.'  It's more of a road movie than a horror and could certainly be described as a film that the term cult-classic would have been coined for, different to the more mainstream vampire flick released that year, Joel Schumacher's The Lost Boys.  Joel Shcumacher's portfolio has range, from the iconic Falling Down and the compelling A Time to Kill to shockers like Batman & Robin.  One of his smaller movies was one of Colin Farrell's earlier movies, Tigerland, in 2000.  It's a gritty movie with an independent-feel, shot on hand-held digital; unlike anything you'd expect from Schumacher.  Tigerland was the training camp that US soldiers would go through before being deployed in the Vietnam war during the sixties and seventies, but it's not really what could be simply described as a war film.  That would be like describing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as a prison movie.  Colin Farrell shines as Bozz, the rebel with an ethos akin to Yossarian from Catch 22, with a performance that paved his way to stardom.  While I'm pointing out star-turns in early roles, I'll mention What's Eating Gilbert Grape from 1993.  Johnny Depp takes the lead, but this was the movie in which Leonardo Di Caprio broke through as his mentally-disabled brother.  It's a remarkable film and earned Di Caprio his first Academy Award nomination a few years before hitting it big with Romeo & Juliet, that one with the ship and his ongoing collaborations with Martin Scorcese.  Another film frrom the nineties that I'd like to cite would be one starring the lead from one of Di Caprio and Scorcese's most successful collaborations; The Departed.  Matt Damon plays a law student, pulled back into the dangerous wold of high-stakes poker, in Rounders, after an old friend, played by Ed Norton, is released from prison.  I remember first watching it on my little TV in the Halls of Residence during University, gripped after renting it on video from Blockbuster.  John Malkovich is magnificent as Teddy KGB, the Russian responsible for running one of the underground establishment that they frequent on the poker-playing circuit, and the movie benefits from a strong supporting cast comprised of Gretchen Mol, Jon Turturro, Famke Janssen and Martin Landau.  It's one of the many that provides the thrills through the tension that it conveys.  On that score, 2011's Margin Call also succeeds.  It's set at a Wall Street investment bank during the start of 2008's financial crisis and focuses on the psychological implications of transpiring events for the key figures involved at the bank rather than the technicalities.  It's completely engaging and well acted by Zachary Quinto, Paul Bethany, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Kevin Spacey and a scene-stealingly over-the-top Jeremy Irons.  However, it's not a patch on one of my favourite outstanding ensemble-cast films, Glengarry Glen Ross.  This again includes Kevin Spacey, along with Ed Harris, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Jonathan Pryce, Al Pacino and an iconic scene driven by Alec Baldwin.  Released in 1992, Glengarry Glen Ross focuses on a few hours at a Real Estate office.  The pressure to sell is high, the salesmen have reached desperation point and it's masterfully written by David Mamet.  It was the film that brought Mamet to my attention.  He's got a very distinct style as a screenwriter and playwright, applying rhythm to his realistic dialogue.  His well-known works include The Edge, Ronin and The Untouchables, but you should check out The Spanish Prisoner,Heist and Spartan.  For me, those showcase his ingenuity when it comes to plotting and telling a story.

And finally, many may have seen Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhall last year.  It was directed by Denis Villeneuve and evoked a strong reaction from those that I've spoken to and from the reviews that I've read.  A film that packs an even stronger punch would be Villeneuve's previous movie, academy-award-nominated Indendies from 2010.  It's a very powerful drama with a mystery unfolding for brother and sister twins following the reading of their mother's will. 

I'd like to revisit this subject again in the future and mention others that I feel are underrated classics and hidden gems. I'm always on the lookout and hope that many new discoveries come to my attention before then.

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