Saturday, March 29, 2008

Nine Underrated Movie Gems

Birthday Girl—This dark romantic comedy (set in England, but filmed in Australia) is funny, suspenseful, and sexy. Nicole Kidman is irresistible as a Russian mail-order bride, who hapless Ben Chaplin discovers is not all he expected her to be. Chaplin is a poor, trod-upon bloke, living a life overrun by petty nuisances at home and at work, whose fantasies come to life when he finds himself with a would-be bride who apparently speaks not a word of English. The film skewers the dull routine of work as effectively as Office Space and The Office do, and the images of suburban dullness offset the catlike but unreadable seductiveness of Kidman’s character. Another great point about this movie is the presence of Vincent Cassell (my favorite actor) and Mathieu Kassovitz, whose funny critique of the musical Cats towards the end of the film reveals a lot about the order of power in their relationship. But BG is Kidman’s movie first and foremost, and her nuanced performance traces every step of the character’s fickle affections and affiliations.

Cellular—Chris Evans’ star-making vehicle is more than his finely crafted torso alone. It’s an action comedy, with chase elements reminiscent of Speed. The film features Kim Basinger, William H. Macy, and Jason Statham—as the leader of a gang of bad guys with a penchant for fuckability. Like Speed, Cellular has a plot whose very improbability becomes the central appeal of the movie. The film relies on a string of coincidences and mistaken identity, which provide a large share of the entertainment value. The sense of urgency, mixed with speedy edits and eye candy, more than compensates for the holes in the plot—and, besides, to complain about plot holes in an action movie is like complaining that musicals unrealistically break for song-and-dance numbers.

Crank—Jason Statham again, this time in the driver’s seat. This movie is literally adrenalin charged, focusing on a hit man injected with some mysterious Chinese dope that kills him if his heart rate falls below a certain level—truly a stupid means of killing off one’s enemies, as the movie makes clear. But like Cellular, Crank proves that improbability is the lifeblood of action comedy. The result here is a breathlessly fast-paced adventure in which Statham attempts to track down and avenge himself against his murderers, while at the same time seeking an antidote for the fatal drug.

Hellboy—Ron Perlman is Hellboy—his best role ever! Hellboy the movie is stylishly directed by Guillermo del Toro—and even though the film starts to lag after the halfway point, the first half has daring, frightening, jaw-dropping images one is not likely to forget—particularly the glimpses of Lovecraftian evil. This—not Pan’s Labyrinth—is del Toro’s best work. But Perlman as the wisecracking demon—who files down his horns to “fit in”—is the reason to see this movie. The guy is both physically impressive and funny as … well … hell.

Margot at the Wedding—Nicole Kidman again—herself an actress often unjustly overlooked. Here is the 2007 Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role that Oscar apparently forgot about. The movie brings out the best in all its actors, and even Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jack Black (both also Oscar-worthy) manage to tone down their usual scenery-chewing tendencies. The movie is funny and edgy and, most importantly, real. There has been no shortage of dramedies about dysfunctional families lately, but MatW is the best of the lot. Noah Baumbach’s writing and direction are insightful, wise, and a lovely homage to French director Eric Rohmer—the characters are named after notable Rohmer characters and the film’s title was going to be Nicole at the Beach, until Kidman was cast in the lead.

Mars Attacks!—Tim Burton’s comedy does not work as social/political satire, as perhaps it was intended, but it does work as a delightfully mean-spirited absurdist fable. The movie’s eclectic cast (Jack Nicholson, Michael J. Fox, Annette Bening, Jim Brown, Lucas Haas, Martin Short, Rod Steiger) is competent, with two or three standout performances (Glenn Close is hilarious as a high-strung first lady, Pierce Brosnan’s comic timing is perfect as a dashing scientist, and, in the film’s only successful satire, Paul Winfield’s ass-kissing general sends up military officers with political ambitions—think Powell and McCain). No doubt the film’s misanthropic tone repelled mainstream audiences and critics—aliens threaten to destroy all humanity, but, unlike gung-ho action flicks like Independence Day, Mars Attacks! questions whether humanity in general is worth the effort of saving at all.

The Matador—Pierce Brosnan again—in his best role ever. Brosnan plays a hit man who has lost his mojo—he can’t seem to follow through anymore. Into his life comes businessman Gregg Kinear, who proves to be just the buddy Brosnan needs right now, and their alliance, of course, changes the course of both men’s lives. What I especially liked about this movie is the sexual tension between the two protagonists, complicated by heavy hints of the Brosnan character’s bisexuality. This tension fuels the caper, shot in gaudy colors in Mexico. Hope Davis plays Kinnear’s wife, but the role is too small, the film’s one true defect, wasting the actress’s talent and tantalizing viewers with too rare glimpses into a character remarkable in her own right.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow—The retro sci fi visuals in this overlooked wonder are what make the film brilliant—robots from the covers of Amazing Stories and James Whale-inspired surrealism combine in what is nevertheless a punchy adventure plot with snappy dialogue and relatable characters. Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie (in a small, pivotal role) are not only not overwhelmed by the computer-generated art design, but also not confined to the 2-D cutout characters they initially appear to be. The film captures a world as innocent as Tom Swift, yet as grandiose as Ming the Merciless. It is a wonder from beginning to end.

Trick—I liked this gay comedy when I first saw it, but was somewhat disappointed. I suppose I was not expecting the movie to be as sweetly romantic as it is. I expected it to have a somewhat colder, more brutally honest tone. However, once I reconciled myself to what the film really is all about—hopefulness, love at first sight, inspiration—I put aside my usual cynicism about romance and enjoyed the film as the gentle love story it is. What is special about Trick, though, is that it manages to be sweet and sexy at the same time (J.P. Pitoc—wow, shit, damn), a combination often attempted but seldom achieved—particularly in gay-themed films.

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