Here Iím going to briefly cover several underappreciated modern
films. I wrote a similar survey several years ago highlighting
movies I felt
deserved a wider exposure. Iím not going to make that
argument here, as itís my contention that the titles summarized below,
all released within the last three years, will receive the attention
they deserve in years to come.
Trust me, itís only a matter of time before
BLINDNESS, THE FOUNTAIN and PERFUME are resurrected as Neglected
ClassicsÖor, if you prefer, Underappreciated MasterpiecesÖor the Best
Movies Youíve Never SeenÖor simply Ahead of Their Time.
Hereís a modest proposal: Why not get in on the action
early? Why not forego waiting around for a film to be reappraised (which
can take decades) and appreciate its qualities right now? Yes, I
realize the exhumation of a ďlost classicĒ provides a very real thrill;
thereís an entire branch of criticism, of which Iím a card-carrying
member, that specializes in doing so. However, Iím also in favor of
movies getting the respect they deserve before their creators are dead
Year after year countless films are unfairly
dismissed by critics and audiences who years later have a change of
heart. In my experience Iíve witnessed quite a few such examples,
including BLADE RUNNER, THE THING, LABYRINTH, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE
CHINA, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, FIGHT CLUB and DONNIE DARKO, to name
but a few.
This trend continues, as the following
overview demonstrates. I donít expect you to share my opinions on all
the eight films outlined below, but itís a fact that all were given
short shift, and all are demanding of a reappraisal.
Weíll start with a two-for: Darren
Aronofskyís 2006 sci fi puzzler THE FOUNTAIN and the following
yearís somewhat similar YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH from Francis Ford
Coppola. Iíll admit Iím not entirely sold on either film, but both are
impossible to dismiss.
THE FOUNTAIN was in development for over six years, and
heavily anticipated as a complex and thoughtful mindblower. It is
thoughtful, Iíll say that, and contains many provocative elements, with
a puzzle-like structure that freely alternates past (Hugh Jackman as an
Inquisition-era Spanish warrior in love with Rachel Weisz as a hot
queen), present (Jackman as a scientist and Weisz as his
not-long-for-this-world better half) and future (Jackman adrift SILENT
RUNNING-like in outer space together with a magic tree) in hallucinatory
fashion, and contains at least one eye-popping 2001-esque psychedelic
Unfortunately neither of the central characters have
much in the way of a personality, and their star-crossed love is hardly
the reality-bending phenomena Aronofsky apparently believes it to be.
But then I have the same problem with SOMEWHERE IN TIME, which is widely
hailed as a romantic masterpiece, and IĎve found myself thinking about
THE FOUNTAIN a hell of a lot, indeed far more than most legitimately
The same holds true for YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH, which
despite having been made by an old man actually plays like a young manís
film. Whereas THE FOUNTAIN, which was a young manís film, is
smooth and streamlined, YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH is chaotic and overflowing
with ideas. Thatís a large part of what makes it such a kick.
Tim Roth stars as a scholar who for some reason ages
backwards, beginning as a decrepit geezer in Nazi Germany. Thereís a
young woman who Roth loves with all his heart, although precisely how or
why this relationship got started I never entirely understood.
Perhaps the hallucination-packed narrative is intended
as poetic and/or symbolic. Whatever it is, itís interesting and
exasperating by turns, and not a little self-indulgent. In addition to
the above, Roth has a double with whom he converses, and takes a trip to
India where he discovers his sweetie can speak prehistoric languages.
The result is an indigestible morass of sci fi, surrealism, intellectual
speculation and picturesque adventure--in other words, a film right up
BLINDNESS was a very good 2008 movie
that got kicked around by seemingly everyone, starting with its Cannes
Film Festival premiere and continuing through its disastrous US release.
I can only assume the herd-mentality of critics is to blame for all the
hate, as the film was faithfully adapted from a Jose Saramago novel that
was universally acclaimed. I donít know why it is that Saramagoís
allegory of actual blindness substituting for moral blindness was seen
as brilliant on the page but silly and sophomoric in movie form, nor why
his narrative was acclaimed as admirably uncompromising in the book but
dreary and overly pessimistic in the film. Maybe if this movie were
dubbed into a foreign language and subtitled the reception might have
BLINDNESS boasts a compellingly dark, ominous aura and
an uncomfortably vivid portrayal of a world gone mad. In the lead role
Julianne Moore does her finest work in some time, and Don Mackellar,
Maury Chaykin and Gael Garcia Bernal provide excellent support.
Itís a rough film, certainly, but also a unique and
uniquely ambitious one. Director Fernando Meirellesí mixture of grit and
surrealism is utterly distinct, although I suspect it was one of the big
turn-offs for most critics, who prefer that films lean one way or the
BUG was director William Friedkinís best film in years,
if not decades. You wouldnít have known that from the initial reviews,
however, which wrote it off as gross and self-indulgent. Reminds me of
earlier Friedkin project that, in a stunningly ironic twist of fate, was
re-released around the same time BUG was making its 2007 theatrical bow:
CRUISING, a 1980 box office bomb that was savaged by critics.
Surprise! The latter has since been crowned with the Misunderstood
Masterpiece tag--a tag Iím positive will sooner or later be bestowed on
Itís the wildly claustrophobic tale of a psychotic
Desert Storm vet (Michael Shannon) who shares his delusions about
ravenous bugs, mind control and other fun things with a needy young
woman (Ashley Judd) who gradually comes to experience them herself.
Whether Shannon has a contagious malady, as is suggested early on, or
Judd was simply crazy from the get-go is left unexplained.
The film is intense to an uncomfortable degree and
relentless in its unvaryingly grim trajectory, with an apocalyptic
finale that contains not a hint of redemption, much less optimism. The
performances of Shannon and Judd are appropriately raw and fearless, not
unlike the film itself. Also like the film overall, the acting straddles
the edge of total hysteria, making for a lacerating experience youĎll
GOYAíS GHOSTS (2006) is not a ghost story, though
it is the darkest movie ever made by director Milos Forman (ONE FLEW
OVER THE CUCKOOíS NEST, AMADEUS), who was very likely channeling his own
perilous WWII upbringing. Itís a historical chronicle centering on the
16th Century Spanish painter Goya (Stellan Skarsgaard), who
Forman depicts as a kind-hearted but opportunistic rogue loyal to
whoever happens to be in power. Opposing him is Javier Bardem as an even
more opportunistic friar and high-ranking officer of the Spanish
inquisition. Natalie Portman is also on hand as a sweet young thing who
pays dearly for her naivetť.
While the scenes of inquisition-sanctioned torture and
the subsequent bloody warfare are never particularly excessive, they do
their job, creating an atmosphere of all-pervading madness that only the
supremely crafty survive. As usual with Foreman, the photography and art
direction are magnificent, his narrative compelling and the
performances, particularly that of Bardem, uniformly impeccable. Yes,
the film overall is uneven (the result, apparently, of a troubled
production), but it works, complete with a determinedly unresolved
finale. Those expecting AMADEUS 2 (as many critics and audiences
evidently were) will be disappointed, but those willing to accept the
film on its own terms will be sated, and far ahead of the
it-was-misunderstood-during-its-release critical curve.
Also from 2006 was FUR: AN IMAGINARY PORTRAIT OF
DIANE ARBUS. Reviewers were hung up on the fact that the film isnít
very insightful about the life of photographer Diane Arbus, never
bothering to show a single photo of hers and sticking her in a story
that, as the title makes clear, is completely made up (nor is Nicole
Kidman ideal casting as Arbus, who was short, brunette and Jewish). So
the filmmakers dug their own grave in many respects.
My advice? Forget the Arbus angle and concentrate on
FURíS very real virtues. Steven Sheinberg (SECRETARY) is an uncommonly
skilled filmmaker with a real affinity for the freakish and grotesque,
two qualities FUR has in abundance. It dramatizes the early years of
Diane Arbusí career, positing that a reclusive man covered in dark fur
moved into the building where Arbus and her family were living. In the
course of the film she strikes up a relationship with the fur man
(nicely played by Robert Downey Jr.), who unleashes Arbusí repressed
desires and sets her on her lifeís path.
PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER is a secret
European audiences were in on from the start; it was released there in
2006, and to great success, before its blink-and-youíll-miss-it U.S. bow
in early Ď07. Apparently deciding the film had made all the money it was
going to in Europe (where it raked in over $100 million), Dreamworks
gave it a royal dumping. Even more dispiriting was the near unanimous
dismissal of the film by stateside critics.
Itís an adaptation of Patrick Suskindís 1986 novel.
That book happens to be one of my all-time favorites, meaning I was
deeply nitpicky about the film. Iím always hesitant seeing a favorite
book venture out into the world, and the fact that this film was able to
withstand my skepticism is a testament to director
cinematic mastery. Here Tykwer attempted something that hasnít been done
in cinema (if Iím not mistaken) since John Watersí POLYESTER: he used
image and sound to convey a sense of smell.
Thatís in keeping with the book, which was fragrant
above all else. Tykwer for the most part follows it closely, with a
visually opulent yet dark, squalid aura that nearly approximates
Suskindís prose. The story is about Grenoille, a scent-obsessed
sociopath looking to create the perfect perfume in late-1700ís France.
This entails much soul searching and a number of gruesome killings
before the film arrives at its utterly delirious climax: an astounding
mass orgy thatís staged about as well as can be imagined.
Iím going to conclude this survey with one of the most
maligned films of recent years: M. Night Shyamalanís LADY IN THE
WATER. Itís probably pointless decrying the negative reviews the
film got, as it was made a laughing stock before it was even released
(hearing director Ivan Reitman blithely put it down on the Howard Stern
Show was particularly galling--it came out the same week as Reitmanís MY
SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND, and we know what a masterpiece that was).
The shocking truth, however, is that THE LADY IN THE WATER, while
undeniably flawed, isnít that bad. Matter of fact itís actually pretty
It features Paul Giamatti as a janitor becoming
involved with a water nymph (Bryce Dallas Howard) who appears in his
apartment swimming pool. M. Night contributes superbly atmospheric
direction, creating a fairy tale ambiance more vivid and atmospheric
than those of most straight fantasy films.
Far less enchanting is the script. Shyamalan may have
begun his career as a screenwriter, but heís a far better director than
he is a scribe. His deficiencies are painfully evident in this filmís
wonky narrative, particularly during the second half, as Giamatti and
his fellow tenants try to make sense of an Oriental fairy tale (actually
a bedtime story Shyamalan told his kids) that has so many twists, turns
and misdirections I lost interest after awhile. But I wouldnít have
missed this movie for anything, and neither should you. THE LADY IN THE
WATER, like the other films outlined above, may be near-universally
disliked, but that will change. Just wait!