Monday, October 07, 2013

Movie Monday: The "I've Seen That One, and That One, and, Oh, That One, Too" Edition

I found this really cool book at the library the other day, Son of the 100 Best Movies You've Never Seen" (ECW Press, 2008; 304 pages), by Richard Crouse. Crouse is a Canadian film critic who, I assume has written another (first) book about great unseen films. Considering the "Son of" in the title of this one and all.

I picked up the book primarily to see which films Crouse had listed that I haven't even heard of, much less seen. It was no surprise at all that there were some films listed that I haven't heard of. Quite a few in fact.

A few stood out, just because of their titles. "Amphibian Man" (1962)? "The Brown Bunny" (2003)? "The Cars That Ate Paris?" (1974)? "Switchblade Sisters" (1975)?

To be honest, I'm a little surprised that I had never heard of "The Brown Bunny". Apparently, it set off a feud between the filmmaker, Vincent Gallo (who also starred), and renowned film critic Roger Ebert after Ebert called it "the worst in the history of Cannes" after it was shown at that festival. The feud went so far as for Gallo to put a hex on Ebert's colon, and ended only when Ebert softened his opinion of the film after he viewed an edited version. This is the sort of story that usually comes to my attention, one way or another.

The other thing that surprised me about the book is that I have actually seen several of the supposedly unsuccessful and/or obscure films on Crouse's list.

Six of them in fact.

Those six are: "The Astronaut Farmer" (2006); "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" (2002); "Fantastic Voyage" (1966); "The Last Laugh" (1924); "Serenity" (2005); and "Titicut Follies" (1967).

I only saw two of the films - "Titicut Follies" and "The Last Laugh" - because they were shown in college courses I took. "The Last Laugh" is a German silent film that I saw in a film history class. Directed by F. W. Murnau and starring Emil Jannings, it is an exquisite look at how some people become so defined by their occupations that when they lose their job they disappear, even to themselves.

"Titicut Follies", on the other hand, is a documentary that takes a harsh look at conditions in a Massachusetts asylum for the criminally insane. It is such a harsh film that it was banned and virtually unseen from shortly after its release in 1967. The actual ban, which was handed down y the Massachusetts Supreme Court and allowed showings only to a few selected medical, legal, and education professionals, was lifted in 1992. Even then, however, filmmaker Frederick Wiseman kept his film mostly out o the limelight for years, although it was shown once on PBS after the ban was lifted. Now, of course, it can be found on YouTube.

I saw "Titicut Follies" in a class on the anthropology of images. I probably would never have even heard of it otherwise. It is difficult - sometimes nearly impossible - to watch, but it is a brilliant piece of filmmaking.

Neither "The Astronaut Farmer" nor "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" did very well at the box office, even though they were meant to be mainstream commercial films. I can kind of understand that lack of success in the case of "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind". It is an odd film, based on the memoir of the same name by game-show entrepreneur Chuck Barris. In the 1960s and 1970s Barris created such iconic game shows as "The Dating Game", "The Newlywed Game", and "The Gong Show". In his memoir, Barris claimed that he used his shows as a cover or his other job - as an assassin for the CIA. Who knows whether he really meant for any of the memoir to be taken sseriously. And, of course, the CIA claims they have no knowledge of him as an employee of any kind.

Still, it made a marvelous concept for a film. After floating around in development hell for a while, it got made with George Clooney directing (and playing Barris's CIA handler), and Sam Rockwwell and Drew Barrymore starring as Barris and his love int4erest. As I said, it's a odd film, but in a good way. Here is the trailer for the film, with a little taste of it's oddness:

I'm a bit more puzzled about why "The Astronaut Farmer" didn't do any better than it did at the box office. Starring Billy Bob Thornton, the film tells the story of an astronaut in training who was cut from NASA before he was able to go into space. Not to be denied, the builds his own rocket in his barn, risking everything he has to do so. Nobody notices until he starts shopping around for rocket fuel, which sets alarms going off at the FBI and the FAA. After numerous setbacks and near-disaster, he starts over again and eventually, with a launch crew consisting of his family, he manages to launch himself and his rocket into space.

A little unbelievable? Yeah, but it's one of the best "triumph-over-adversity" films I've ever seen. Thornton hits all the right notes as Charlie Farmer, and the supporting cast (which includes Bruce Willis in an uncredited role) do their jobs well. There is a message, but it is a good one: that you can do anything you set your mind to. This is a message that more people need to hear and believe right now, I think. But, I'll get off my soap-box and show you the trailer for "The Astronaut Farmer":

The final two movies on Crouse's list that I've seen - "Fantastic Voyage" (1966) and "Serenity" (2005) - are both science fiction.

"Serenity" is the film that gives closure to the Fox television series "Firefly", which was cancelled after just eleven of its episodes had aired but that still managed to find a devoted, if initially small, audience. "Firefly" came and went so fast that, as much of a science fiction fan as I am, I missed it on its initial run. I caught up later, but I still wish I had found it when it was new.

Yeah, it's premise is unusual - basically it's cowboys in space, and the ragged losers of a war for their part of the universe against the huge military corporation that won - but it works. When creator, writer, and director Joss Whedon puts a herd of cows on a spaceship for transport, or has a train robbery conducted out of a spaceship, you believe it. Or at least I did. The film features the same crew of outlaws, miscreants, and refugees as the series, and it feels like a bigger, better episode, just transferred to the big screen. And, just like the series, the movie will make you laugh and it will break your heart.

And then there's "Fantastic Voyage". I saw this one when it first was released in theaters in 1966, which made me about ten at the time. Even then, I could see that the story had plot holes you could drive a space ship through. Even so, it holds the viewer's attention (and, yes, I have seen it again since I was ten). The effects in the film, which tells the story of a miniaturized submarine and it's medical crew voyaging through the human body, were state of the art at the time - it won two Academy Awards, for Visual Effects and for Art Direction, Yes, it is very much a film of its decade. But given the shape the world is in, in this decade, a trip back to that less complicated time (well, relatively) isn't such a bad prospect.

The book Crouse wrote is fun. I'd recommend tracking it down. I know, I plan on finding the first volume, to see what is on that list and how many of those films I've seen.

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