Forgotten pleasures of the multiplex, pt 4:
Josh Gordon & Will Speck’s The Switch (2010)
Unloved, unlauded but no longer alone: 80 mainstream movies from the past 30 years that were either commercially or critically buried
Brad Anderson, US, 2001
By Tim Robey, The Daily Telegraph, UK
American genre-whizz Anderson is the definition of underappreciated. With the sole exception of The Machinist (2004), his films have all struggled to achieve a release in cinemas outside the US. For Session 9, a single-location psych-horror creep-out that has since achieved cult status, this fate seems especially undeserved. Peter Mullan does tremendous, nuanced work as the harassed foreman of an asbestos cleaning crew who take a cut-rate job clearing out an abandoned mental asylum and find the history and decrepit emptiness of the place affecting them more then they’d like to admit. Anderson, who co-scripted with cast member Stephen Gevedon, makes the mounting dread of their discoveries – including hokey but unnerving tape recordings of a former patient with multiple personality disorder – interestingly oblique motors for suspense, while the fraying work ethic gives David Caruso, Josh Lucas and Brendan Sexton some good, panicked moments. The movie’s inspiration and real star is the location itself – the actual, abandoned Danvers State Hospital, a winged red-brick bat of a building, gutted and dank, which squats on a hill outside Boston. Like the Saltair amusement park in Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962), it’s a place that summons its own ghosts the second we’re inside.
Seven Minutes in Heaven
Linda Feferman, US, 1985
By Adrian Martin, academic and critic, Australia
On the production side of this film, only Fred Roos and Zoetrope will ring a bell with cinephiles; from the cast, only Jennifer Connelly has fulfilled the promise she showed as a teenager. But Seven Minutes in Heaven is one of many modest 1980s gems that reminds us of a brief flowering in genre-driven creativity that was neither mainstream nor indie and that gave opportunities to many women to make what turned out to be their only feature films. Natalie (Connelly), Jeff (Byron Thames) and Polly (Maddie Corman) are ordinary teens, not much past puberty. They argue with their parents, struggle with school assignments and wonder about love and sex. Director and co-writer Feferman lightly disrupts the patterns of their lives in order to engineer ambiguous, exploratory, liminal moments: Jeff sleeps over at Natalie’s place after running away from home, while Polly heads off to a big city to pursue a rock star she reveres. Nothing more momentous than a bit of kissing happens, and the film delivers nothing more cathartic than a smile and a group-skate. But Seven Minutes in Heaven is at every moment charming, witty and playful.
Dave Bruckner, Jacob Gentry & Dan Bush, US, 2007
By Anton Bitel, academic and critic, UK
On New Year’s Eve in a city called Terminus, society descends into chaos as televisions, radios and cellphones emit a signal that unfetters people’s ids, leading to madness and murder. Yet such pandemonium merely forms the apocalyptic background to this low-budget indie, where the tempestuous psychodynamics of a love triangle are presented in three linked episodes (or ‘transmissions’), each made by a different writer-director, each told from a different character’s point of view, and each boasting a radically different style and tone, from slasher thriller to black farce to mind-melting pathos. With its split-personality approach to narrative and its disorienting presentation of unreliable perspectives, The Signal draws viewers right into its delirium, messing with our mood response and manipulating our fears and desires. This reflexive confusion of medium and message offers a bludgeoning interrogation of the impact that the video image can have on humanity’s fragile psyche. Updating George A. Romero’s The Crazies (1973) for the digital age far more imaginatively than Breck Eisner’s 2010 remake, this terrifying, funny and haunting film merits several viewings.
David Mamet, US, 2003
By Adam Lee Davies, critic, UK
There was a time when David Mamet’s scripts for The Untouchables and Glengarry Glen Ross – hell, even Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin’s outward-bound shouting match The Edge – were filling out the multiplexes, while as a director he was also holding the arthouse crowd rapt with such spare, formalist, precision-tooled gems as House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner. Then people just didn’t seem so interested any more. It’s a shame because arguably his best work came after those glory days: in Heist’s long-con machismo, in the genre-expanding fight club of Redbelt, and in overlooked secret service drama Spartan. An outwardly simple political thriller in which Val Kilmer’s Delta Force-type goes rogue to rescue the president’s daughter, Spartan is so aware of it’s own boiled-down purity and flinty meticulousness that it ought to buckle under its own weight. Thanks to Mamet’s seasoned deceit, the weights and measures of genre expectation are balanced into so delicate an equilibrium that any unexpected shift in plot or character swings the film into arcs of geometric unpredictability and on towards a shattering conclusion.
Mark Romanek, US, 1985
By Kim Newman, critic, UK
When Mark Romanek directed One Hour Photo (2002), it tended to be seen as the music video maven’s first feature, an impression the director himself tried to foster, though when I interviewed him about Static in 1985, he seemed justifiably pleased with how it had turned out. Co-scripted by star Keith Gordon, who was about to embark on his own undervalued but fascinating career as a director (The Chocolate War, A Midnight Clear, Mother Night and Waking the Dead also fit this list), it’s a strange story about an inventor who develops a machine to “make people happy, not sad”, which turns out to be a television set that shows Heaven. It has a Lynch-like feel for the small-town bizarre, as represented by the protagonist’s odd day job (weeding defective crucifixes out of a production line for religious artefacts) and the sunstruck desert Christmas backdrop. The film is bewildering, sometimes close to whimsical, but its wit, humanity and unique outlook stay in the mind. You can tell how skewed from normality the picture is because Amanda Plummer, usually typecast as a loon, plays the anchor of sanity in this world.
Streets of Fire
Walter Hill, US, 1984
By Ryan Gilbey, New Statesman, UK
Hill is justly celebrated for The Driver (1978) and The Warriors (1979), but Streets of Fire has fallen through the cracks. The picture is like a rock ’n’ roll song played out in comic-strip panels; it shares key DNA with Alphaville and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Dick Tracy and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Set in a nocturnal, neon-singed and studio-bound 1950s city that resembles a giant Americana gift shop (diners, leather jackets, elevated subways, motorcycles), it’s rendered with a 1980s style and saltiness, much as Far from Heaven would later bring 21st-century explicitness to Sirkian melodrama. The characters here are mere stereotypes: the lone warrior, the chanteuse, the biker. Acting is manifestly not required, though Willem Dafoe, as the cadaverous villain, does some anyway. The movie’s pulpy joy lies in its loving distillation of decades of US pop-culture myth-making into 90 rhapsodic minutes.
The Sure Thing
Rob Reiner, US, 1985
By Kate Stables, critic, UK
Released at the high point of the 1980s teen-movie boom, this warm, well-crafted and unexpectedly winning film has been overshadowed in the collective memory by the John Hughes/Cameron Crowe monopoly on high-quality youth dramas. Buried beneath the kind of leering title obligatory in that era and the Porky’s-style marketing is a classical Hollywood three-act romantic comedy. It adroitly reworks Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) as a college road trip, replete with crisp battle-of-the-sexes banter, beer-shotgunning and, unusually for then and now, a couple punching at the same weight. John Cusack’s Gib, hitching cross-country to a fabled trophy girl at UCLA while bickering his way into love with Daphne Zuniga’s uptight classmate Alison, is the first and one of the best portrayals of the wisecracking, insecure outsider he incarnated in the 1980s. Reiner’s character-based humour makes The Sure Thing the smartly comic counterpart to the adolescent angst of Crowe’s Say Anything (1989), the frolicking script giving off an authentic tang of freshman confusion over first moves and first love. It’s a movie that’s funny, insightful and rueful about youth’s conflicts between sex and love, a trifecta eluding its crasser contemporaries that were hell-bent on frisky business.
Josh Gordon & Will Speck, US, 2010
By Paul Julian Smith, academic and critic, US
The Switch was buried on release by films on the same theme: the critically acclaimed The Kids Are All Right and forgettable Jennifer Lopez vehicle The Back-up Plan. And what could be more insulting than the premise that star Jennifer Aniston, being too plain to get a date, has recourse to a sperm donor? Yet this turkey-baster romcom deserves critical respect. As the lovelorn best friend who drunkenly switches his sperm with that of the dumb hunk employed by Aniston’s character, Jason Bateman is as smart and funny as he was on television’s Arrested Development. Bateman, for once allowed leading-man status, reinvents the New York neurotic as a troubled but sexy update of Woody Allen. Playing the requisite sidekicks with more skill than the roles require are a dignified Jeff Goldblum and a riotous Juliette Lewis. Aniston lends surprising dignity to a role that could have played into her tabloid image as she-who-gets-dumped. A sharp script and deft direction lead to an unconvincing happy ending. But The Switch is proof that the dumbest premise, if treated with wit and style, can produce a sharp and moving experience.
That Thing You Do!
Tom Hanks, US, 1996
By Trevor Johnston, critic, UK
Sweetness has never been a highly prized celluloid quality. We want bleak, we crave conflict. In that respect, it’s not easy to make a case for Tom Hanks’s sole feature credit as writer-director, a rites of passage tale involving a one-hit pop band circa 1964, which remains defiantly cheery even as the boys blow their chance at the big time. While Hanks himself is sometimes avuncular, sometimes shark-like as the Play-Tone Records exec who spots potential pay dirt in youthful beat combo The Wonders, and Johnathon Schaech’s ego-driven frontman supplies the plot reversals, the movie’s most invested in Tom Everett Scott’s drummer, who amiably learns that the journey is about more than the destination. He’s gangly and likeable in the John Gordon Sinclair mould, and there’s something Forsythian about the film too, always alive to the telling diversion (including Bill Cobbs as a passing jazz legend and Rita Wilson’s warm-hearted waitress). No, it’s not exactly a cliché-free zone, but the period feel is bright and breezy, the charm factor not inconsiderable and the whole thing just puts a smile on your face even after numerous viewings. Maybe not one to admire: it’s one to love.
Throw Momma from the Train
Danny Devito, US, 1987
By Ben Walters, critic, UK
With this film, The War of the Roses (1989) and Death to Smoochy (2002), Danny Devito carved out a niche as a director of the cinematic equivalents of 98 per cent chocolate: bitter as hell but delicious all the same. In this riff on Strangers on a Train, he casts Billy Crystal as Larry, an also-ran writer whose ex-wife is the latest literary hot potato, and himself as Owen, put-upon son to a monstrous mother and Larry’s least promising writing student. Grabbing the wrong end of the stick, Owen sets in motion a criss-cross murder plot that has Larry aghast then intrigued. There’s plenty of enjoyment to be mined from the deliriously accelerating plot and miscommunications but the film is also painfully alive to the frustrations of the creative process and family obligation, frustrations that dovetail with exquisite intolerability in Anne Ramsey’s Momma, nonchalantly dripping mots justes from one corner of her mouth and guilt trips from the other.
Ron Shelton, US, 1996
By Tom Charity, critic and programmer, Canada
Tin Cup is no more about golf than Raging Bull is about boxing. And if we accept that Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta is a portrait of male anger, impotence and self-loathing, then how about Kevin Costner’s Roy ‘Tin Cup’ McAvoy as the half-celebratory, half-appalled apotheosis of the middle-aged, Middle American man-child in all his narcissistic vainglory? Writer-director Shelton is pigeonholed as ‘the sports-movie guy’, but he looks to Peckinpah as his benchmark, and he’s as close as we’ve come to a latter-day Howard Hawks. Another analogue is Michael Mann, if you substitute bats and balls for guns and sports cars, self-mocking humour for earnest self-importance, and the sexual cut-and-thrust of screwball banter for moody silences. All Shelton’s films (they include White Men Can’t Jump, Cobb and Dark Blue) are worth seeing and, with the exception of Bull Durham, they have all been underrated. The poky, lopsided Tin Cup may not be his masterpiece, but as a paean to the poetry of bullshit and the romance of failure it stands way out on its own.
George P. Cosmatos, US, 1993
By Graham Fuller, critic, US
Kevin Jarre wrote a superlative script about the 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the ensuing Cochise County War, wherein Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday revenged themselves on the cowboy faction that had killed Morgan Earp and wounded Virgil Earp. Jarre started to direct the film too, but was quickly fired, allegedly for not thinking visually. Cosmatos replaced him, occasioning walkouts and more dismissals, and Kurt Russell, cast as Wyatt, supervised the slashing of Jarre’s opus by 29 pages. A structural mess focusing on an oddly directionless protagonist, the film has neither the noirish claustrophobia or psychological complexity of My Darling Clementine (John Ford’s mythical Earp classic), nor the dreariness of Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (which was planned as a Tombstone spoiler). But if Cosmatos went overboard in the gothic sequence that culminates in Wyatt’s hysteria at Morgan’s assassination, he also brought buckets of panache to the saga, which plays as a seething frontier Godfather and surely helped to seed Deadwood. Val Kilmer is mesmerising as the ice-cool, tubercular Doc, especially brilliant when mocking with a silver whisky cup the flashy pistol-twirling of Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn).
Walter Hill, US, 1992
By Philip French, The Observer, UK
Hill came to the forefront of Hollywood directors in the 1970s with a succession of laconic, stylised action movies in the tradition of Walsh, Hawks and Siegel, though his work is also indebted to Melville and Peckinpah. His later films failed to find popular or critical favour, though his television work, most notably the defining first episode of Deadwood (2004) and the mini-series Broken Trails (2006), are highly regarded. However, in the early 1990s he made three movies, the thriller Trespass and the westerns Geronimo (1993) and Wild Bill (1995): all remarkable, yet little remarked on. Trespass was initially withheld from distribution after the 1992 LA riots, and while the script is credited to Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, it’s unmistakably a Hill movie and ranks with his best. Bill Paxton and William Sadler play Arkansas firemen drawn to run-down post-industrial East St Louis by a map recording a precious cache of loot long hidden in an abandoned factory. The building is unfortunately the secret HQ of drug dealers, and a violent running battle ensues. It’s a clever conflation of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Treasure Island in a modern urban setting, and the tension never lets up. Ry Cooder’s score is outstanding.
Two Idiots in Hollywood
Stephen Tobolowsky, US, 1988
By Adam Lee Davies, critic, UK
The VHS years produced such an immense raft of slipshod, speculative awfulness that it’s tempting to consign the whole lot to the dump. However, buried within this decade-long barge of bilge were such odd and fiery nuggets as this cracked comedy. The story revolves around the relocation of a couple of fortysomething defectives from Dayton, Ohio to the ashy tract housing of east LA. Tobolowsky (best known as the terminally annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day and for writing True Stories with David Byrne) nudges the misaligned satellites of unchecked idiocy and cinematic daring towards an event horizon of structural audacity and breakneck cutting that glimmers impressively with dark shards of self-reflexive wit and curves along a mean bend of narrative pliancy. So the film transmutes its back-alley production values and ragged conception into a magnetic aria that will astound those attuned to such funky stuff. The ghosts of William Castle, Godard and Woody Allen are all honoured in a film that manages to be both shockingly amusing and amusingly shocking.
Jonathan Kaplan, US, 1992
By Geoffrey Macnab, critic, UK
Unlawful Entry was one of a number of yuppie-in-peril films that came out in the early 1990s. Its director Jonathan Kaplan, best known for The Accused, was a graduate of the Roger Corman school of exploitation fare (he made The Student Teachers and Night Call Nurses for Corman). He has gone on to work extensively in television drama. Kaplan has made some duds along the way (for example, Bad Girls) but he is a prime example of a director who brings intensity and artistry to genre work. Unlawful Entry stars Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe as the yuppie couple and Ray Liotta (fresh from his triumph in Goodfellas) as the deranged cop who terrorises them. Kaplan skilfully ratchets up the tension and the film plays like a companion piece to Scorsese’s version of Cape Fear, with a larger-than-life villain preying on clean-cut protagonists. However, alongside the predictable genre elements, the film touches on deeper issues: the corruption of the LAPD (the film was made around the time of the Rodney King case) and the creeping uncertainty and anxiety of white, middle-class America in the face of the big, bad world beyond its heavily protected homes.
Blake Edwards, UK, 1982
By Edward Buscombe, academic and critic, UK
Blake Edwards rarely had his just desserts. When he died last year, obituaries were scarcely better than respectful, and David Thomson in his The Biographical Dictionary of Film is downright dismissive. Though Edwards was highly rated by Movie magazine in the mid-1960s, the consensus is that his later career was a huge disappointment. But there are gems, always with strong performances (Edwards was originally an actor): Peter Sellers in The Party (1968), Dudley Moore in 10 (1979) and Kim Basinger in Blind Date (1987), all genuinely funny films. And then there is Victor Victoria, starring Edwards’s wife Julie Andrews. The film is a dazzling exploration of gender-bending, with Andrews never better in the title role as a woman passing as a man who is a female impersonator. Edwards’s movie is a remake of a remake, having been first a German release of 1933 (Vicktor und Viktoria), then a British musical of 1935 starring Jessie Matthews (First a Girl). The director sets his film in Paris in the 1930s, with Robert Preston (quite wonderful) playing the gay lover of ‘Victor’ and James Garner as the gangster who falls for her (or is it him?). At times one can get quite dizzy trying to find solid ground as Andrews slips in and out of the sexes (and occasionally in and out of her clothes).
M. Night Shyamalan, US, 2004
By Jonathan Romney, The Independent on Sunday, UK
It’s hard now to imagine a time when Shyamalan wasn’t a synonym for vainglorious myth-making buffoonery – and yet the genuinely surprising understatement of his quasi-debut The Sixth Sense had some critics invoking Henry James. His fourth film as a genre specialist, The Village, was the last convincing thing he has made, and its exoticism and perversity mark it out as an audacious anomaly among Hollywood genre films. On its release, viewers – watching for the signature Shyamalan Twist – prided themselves on having out-guessed the premise from the start, but that’s not the point. Packing a double twist that addressed the nature of deception and our willingness to be deceived (by filmmakers and politicians alike), Shyamalan’s parable of hysterical insularity offers a baroque representation of the American national psyche and its roots. The film’s neo-Lovecraftian fancies – its pop evocation of a Nathaniel Hawthorne past, its bizarre woodland creatures, its hugely eccentric recasting of Little Red Riding Hood as a Waif in Yellow – make The Village as powerfully visual a piece of storytelling as has been produced in Hollywood in recent years, its parable-like simplicity a bewitching anomaly in an age of crowd-pleasing false complexity.
The Wisdom of Crocodiles
Po-Chih Leong, UK, 1998
By Kim Newman, critic, UK
A deceptively quiet British vampire movie, directed by Po-Chih Leong, which deconstructs the odd relationship between vampire and victim that has become fetishised in the subsequent ‘vampire romance’ craze. Bulgarian immigrant Steven Grlscz (Jude Law), apparently a wealthy medical researcher, is a one-of-a-kind mutant (“a mistake... a crocodile who needs a job”) who feeds on crystalline substances (akin to kidney stones) created in his lover-victims’ blood by their emotional reactions to him. Law (always best cast as non-humans) underplays effectively as the unusual monster, trapped in a cycle of love and betrayal that forces him to share (literally) the feelings of the women (Kerry Fox, Elina Löwensohn) he kills. Timothy Spall is the policeman who thinks having no vowels in a name ought to be illegal, and gets close to seeing what the monster is. British-born Leong, who made Hong Kong movies before this and has subsequently been a direct-to-DVD hired hand for Steven Seagal and Wesley Snipes, seems a little influenced by Peter Greenaway in the use of throwaway art direction to characterise the protagonist, with Löwensohn shocked in the vampire’s lair not by a coffin or a corpse but by a wall of pencil sketches of his previous victims.
Women of the Night
Zalman King, US, 1999
By Brad Stevens, critic, UK
King is generally regarded (perhaps by individuals who haven’t actually seen his films) as a purveyor of cheap sleaze for the softcore porn market. But for me, the five features he directed during the 1990s comprise an unbroken series of masterpieces: Blue Movie Blue (1991), Delta of Venus (1995), Shame, Shame, Shame (1998), In God’s Hands (1998) and Women of the Night. The last of these is an insanely ambitious work that tells its complex story – about a blind female disc jockey who narrates three interconnected tales, and is herself part of a tale being narrated by another DJ – in an elliptical manner that’s strikingly Godardian, with voiceovers and editing that reduce the various narrative components to their most basic elements (“fire, sirens, cops, jail”). Wildly mixing arthouse abstractions, music video stylistics, ironic gangster action and unironic romance, while advertising itself as a piece of commercial erotica, this is a film so totally hidden from our cultural guardians that it feels free to be virtually anything, including a traditional melodrama whose aesthetic fragmentation reflects the fragmentation of those long-lost communal audiences that once flocked to see the melodramas of Sirk, Minnelli, Vidor and Preminger.
Mike Nichols, US, 1988
By Carmen Gray, critic, UK
In an era of big schemes and bigger hair, this 1988 romantic comedy was a high point for actress Melanie Griffith. As baby-voiced, ambitiously scheming knockout Tess McGill she has echoes of Marilyn Monroe in her best comedies. But far from the gold-digger of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Tess – a Manhattan corporate secretary – uses canny smarts not vampishness to get ahead. Wonderfully, the film doesn’t see this as a reason to repress her sex appeal. In a mischievous affirmation of all forms of female power, she says: “I have a head for business and a bod for sin. Is there anything wrong with that?” The recipient of this famous line is investment big-wig Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) in a hilarious meet-cute scene at a merger party, where she’s accidentally sozzled through mixing valium and tequila. The film’s buoyant with such screwball situations and witty dialogue, as she steals the identity of conniving boss Katharine (Sigourney Weaver), who’s attempting to pass off Tess’s deal idea as her own. The film came out just a year after Wall Street, and is similar in not condemning ballsy capitalist ambition itself, just unscrupulousness as opposed to honest graft. When Tess finally gets her own office – and secretary – she makes it clear she hasn’t forgotten her Staten Island working-class roots, and in camaraderie with her assistant won’t be expecting her to fetch her coffee. It’s a simple Hollywood fairytale, but in its irreverent, sassy take on gender politics, a bracing one.
Harold Ramis, US, 2009
By Kent Jones, critic, US
If Jack Black is in a movie, I’ll gladly part with $10 to see it with an audience. Make that $30, because my sons are always eager to join me. At this point, he seems to be suffering from a backlash. I find this mysterious, because as far as I’m concerned he doesn’t make enough movies. Zach Galifianakis is the one who needs a break. Come to think of it, I would gladly trade the collected works of Will Ferrell for one raised eyebrow from Jack, before which the collective pomposity of Hollywood filmmaking crumbles into dust. By the way, I sort of like Will Ferrell. What makes Year One, no doubt proudly inspired by Mel Brooks’s glorious History of the World Part I, so special? Is it Harold Ramis’s way with a sight gag, like the hilarious ox-cart chase? Wrong. Is it Michael Cera’s overgrown winsome child act? Not quite. Is it Hank Azaria’s lisping, circumcision-crazed Abraham (“I’ll be right back to cut your penises”) or David Cross’s paranoid Cain (“I didn’t kill my brother, okay?”) or Oliver Platt’s ridiculously hirsute high priest? Wrong again. If I’m feeling down, all I have to do is think of Jack Black munching on an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, pausing for an insight and announcing that he feels “intelligenter”, and the sun shines once more.
The Machinist reviewed by Ben Walters (March 2005)
Spartan reviewed by Liese Spencer (September 2004)
The Wisdom of Crocodiles reviewed by Liese Spencer (January 1999)