Hidden Cinema Treasures
by Phil Noir
Everyone has different tastes in the arts, and movies are no different. There are always lots of them that seem to escape attention, at least at the box office and all the media entertainment channels. I could pick dozens to talk about, but will concentrate on four from the last fifteen years, you may not have heard about, and they’re terrific. I should make a distinction here, between movies and films. A movie is entertaining, but doesn’t ask much of you, except to just lay back and enjoy it. And that’s fine, that’s what movies are supposed to do. But for me a film is something that you have to mentally engage with, so you’re almost a participant. That’s what these films are about. There are no car chases here, no big explosions, no gratuitous violence, and no special-effects driven extravaganzas that mask poor storytelling. I include the directors, too. Each has his or her own style, like Martin Scorcese or the Coen Brothers. Chances are that if you like any of these films, you’ll probably like others by the same director.
“Adaptation” (2002) — Directed by Spike Jonze, who alde “Being John Malkovich” (1999), and last year’s much talked about “Her.” The screenplay is by Charlie and Donald Kaufman. There is a real non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean. Okay, got all that? Now in the film, Nicholas Cage plays a dual role as screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother, Donald. Charlie is struggling to adapt the book into a film. Meryl Streep plays author Orlean, and Chris Cooper (Oscar — Best Supporting Actor) is the orchid hunter in a Florida swamp. The two are attracted to each other (where, in the film, or real life?), and Charlie is kind of stalking them. Remove from heat and let stand five minutes. Plot will thicken. It’s a bizarre blend of the film Charlie is trying to make, the film you’re watching, and events from the book. You may find yourself saying what the heck is going on? You may be having too much fun to care. My only regret, one I have with many films, is that I’ll get to experience it for the first time only once. Some violence.
“The Spanish Prisoner” (1997) — This is one of the latest by my very favorite director, David Mamet. His best known is probably “Glengarry Glen Ross,” but for me one of his early films, “House of Games,” is well worth seeing. It’s about the art of the con, like “The Sting,” except that this explores the psychology of both con men and their marks, and in such compelling fashion. A psychiatrist, Lyndsay Crouse, has a new bestseller about the addictive personality, and you know what they say; write about what you know. And if you’re a fan of Joe Mantegna, like I am, well you’re gonna love this. Oh, but I was supposed to be talking about “The Spanish Prisoner.” It takes its title from an early con game, the modern version being the Nigerian prince scam. The film is about a man (Campbell Scott) who has invented a highly profitable something-or-other, but it’s still in the planning stages. Someone or some group is trying to steal his original drawing, or design, and copyright it for themselves. It’s a bonus to see Steve Martin again in a dramatic role, and Ben Gazzara also stars. You have to watch every thing extremely carefully, or you could miss a small but crucial detail. I’ve seen it three times, and I’ve still missed “the moment.” No, go to the bathroom first, then get your beer or Fritos or whatever, so you won’t have to get up again.
Mamet’s work is strange enough, like Harold Pinter’s plays in a way. Watch any of his films and note the dialogue. It’s off-key, somehow, not really awkward, but somehow unsettling. I thing that’s what he’s after; something psychologically from the viewer. Some of his films still puzzle me, like “Things Change,” but they certainly do hold your attention.
“Flawless” (1999) — Directed by Joel Schumacher, who also did “St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985), “Falling Down” (1993), and the currently hot cable series, “House of Cards.” (don’t confuse it with “Flawless” (2007), starring Michael Caine. I hate it when they duplicate titles for movies or songs. There oughta be a law. Oh, there is?). This one has Robert De Niro as a cop — what, again? I know, but this cop is a real homophobe. One of the tenants in his apartment building is a flaming drag queen — played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The cop can’t stand this guy, but early in the film he’s reacting to some toughs in the building, when he has a stroke. It’s not a major stroke, but it has affected his motor and verbal skills, so he’s on medical leave for awhile, and needs therapy. Can you guess who else lives in that apartment building, and also just happens to be a certified speech therapist? That’s right. The cop begins to see this weird person, and all his drag friends, a little differently. They’re all getting ready for a big drag contest, called Miss Flawless, and they’re popping in and out during his voice lessons. Call this a dramedy if you need to.
I thought Hoffman was one of the finest actors working these days, and his untimely death was a shock to so many of us who appreciated his skill. The part of a flamboyant drag queen can so easily be a cardboard cutout, but Hoffman gives his character a depth and gravitas that few could have brought to the role. I don’t want to give away too much, so let me just say some heroics will be called for before the curtain falls. I just adore this film.
“Surrogates” (2009) — Directed by Jonathan Mostow (“U-571,” “Terminator: Rise of the Machines”). This film is adapted from the Robert Venditti comics, and it’s about consumerism, and the growing tendency to prefer virtual reality to the genuine thing. In this future, most people never leave home. Instead, they send out a look-alike surrogate out into the world, controlling it from home. It’s just safer. The slogan of the corporation marketing them is “Life — Only Better,” and a model for children is in development. Bruce Willis is Greer, an FBI agent, who along with his partner (Radha Mitchell) is investigating a bizarre “murder” of a surrogate and its operator as well.
This film is not adapted from a Philip K. Dick story (like “Total Recall,” “Blade Runner,” and “Minority Report”), but it feels like one. It’s the irony and black humor, I guess. At one point Greer’s surrogate returns from a day on the job, mixes a drink for its operator, and retires to its storage alcove, like a self-hanging suit. “Naturally”, there’s an anti-surrogate movement too, whose activist leader is played by Vingh Rhames. There are a number of questions the film asks. One of them: What happens if your surrogate is disabled, and you actually have to go outside again? Another: When we’ve outsourced our humanity, what do we really have left? I’ve always like Bruce Willis, an extremely versatile performer. He’s a bona fide action hero, but he’s also got the gift of humor (“The Fifth Element”). I don’t think it’s fair to blame him for “Hudson Hawk.” Even Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle struck out sometimes. The good news is that here, as in “The Sixth Sense,” he’s allowed to show his acting chops, and he doesn’t disappoint.
Well, there you have it. It’s been a reel pleasure to tell you about these little nuggets. If you’ve found a few of your own, I’d love to hear about them. Until then, may you relish the darkness, as you stare straight ahead at the bright light. Watching a good film, I mean.