15 Under-Appreciated Films You Need To Watch – Part One

October 26, 2011

Earlier this year I did an article about underrated and/or under-appreciated games which seemed to go down quite well and attract a fair amount of people to the blog. Even now it still gets a certain amount hits per day.

So, influenced by a poll on a football forum to try and find the best film of all time, I’ve decided to do a similar article about movies.

A lot of these films are actually rated quite highly on sites like IMDB, but based on that poll and just from speaking to who I know, it seems some of them just aren’t all that well-known in general.

So, in no particular order, here are the first five…

1. The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)

I came across this film by chance when searching for The Day The Earth Stood Still on LoveFilm. The plot looked interesting, so I gave it a chance and ended up really enjoying it.

When the Earth’s weather starts to take a funny turn and strange meteorological events occur throughout the world, a journalist for the Daily Express does some digging (and since it was filmed 36 years before the Death of Diana it’s not about that) only to discover that by chance both the US and USSR set off test nuclear devices at exactly the same time on opposite sides of the globe. By doing that, the world has been knocked off its axis and is spinning out of control towards the Sun.

The interesting thing about this film is that it’s told from the point of view of Fleet Street; nobody in this film is a hero who is going to sacrifice himself to save humanity. Instead, it’s about how the news is initially covered up, reported and then addressed as the Earth begins to wilt under the heat and freak weather.

It also has a human element to it. While a modern-day telling of this story would no doubt focus on 3D effects and millions of dollars worth of CGI, the fate of the Earth is almost secondary to the relationships between the journalists covering it, and their families. While most modern films would focus on the fact that martial law has been declared and food and water become rationed, this instead explores how that makes the average person feel.

It’s a good story that is both acted and directed well, and also finishes on a cliffhanger, which is a brave thing to do in my opinion.

2. All About Eve (1950)

From time to time my social circle likes to start up ‘Film Night’ where each week one of us selects a film for everyone else to watch that they probably haven’t seen.

One such film that I brought to the table was All About Eve.

Initially I could sense that everyone was inwardly groaning because I’d brought ‘Another Old Film’ to the table rather than been as adventurous as to present The Goonies or Back to the Future. They clearly weren’t expecting much from it.

Until they actually watched it…

At the end, every one of them said “I’m surprised, but I really enjoyed that”.

So what is All About Eve all about? Well, to quote Wikipedia, ‘the film stars Bette Davis  as Margo Channing, a highly regarded but ageing Broadwaystar.Anne Baxter plays Eve Harrington, a willingly helpful young fan who insinuates herself into Channing’s life, ultimately threatening Channing’s career and her personal relationships’.

I can’t speak highly enough about this film; everything about it from the casting and acting (both leading actresses are perfect for the roles they play) to the slow burning storyline are perfect. And I’m not alone in thinking that – this film actually received 14 Oscar Nominations, which is a record never surpassed (only equalled by Titanic). And yet it’s not a particularly well known film by my generation or probably the generation before me. When people talk about classic films it’s always The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, Star Wars etc.

I suspect that the age of the film (it’s 61 years old) will have something to do with it. There are no effects, no masterful direction and a dated style of music that you stopped getting in films during the 60s, but ultimately I don’t think any of that should detract from what is a very special movie.

Even the most sceptical of my friends considered it a terrific watch, so I urge you to give it a chance as well.

I should point out that this is not the original theatrical trailer, but one done by a fan on YouTube. It’s very well done and he deserves a lot of credit for it.

3. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

Speaking of old films, this is one of the oldest films in my collection at an astonishing 72 years old. It’s also the first of three films on this list to star one of my favourite actors of all time – James Stewart.

Made before Stewart fought in World War 2, this is almost a different actor to the one that starred more famously in films like Vertigo, It’s a Wonderful Life and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He certainly looks younger, and in my opinion acts younger as well. It’s actually considered to be the film that really launched his career.

As is the case with most trailers made back then, the one below does absolutely nothing to tell you what the film is about, so to be concise about it, Stewart’s character is the traditional American ‘Good Old Boy’ – a scout leader from back in the days before they were considered creepy. He is invited to replace the recently deceased Senator of his mid-Western state in political office in Washington. But he’s picked because the politicians in charge believe he’ll be an easily manipulated stooge who will help them pass through a selection of self-serving bills that would usually prove unpopular.

When Stewart realises he’s been had for a mug it’s almost too late, as he’s ended up being framed for all the dodgy dealings that have been going on. The only way he can save himself is to prevent a motion being passed in the Senate to have him removed, and the only way to do that is to stage a filibuster (i.e. if he keeps talking without stopping then nobody else can have their say without his permission).

This turns out to be one of the finest scenes in a movie I’ve ever seen. The acting is tremendous and it is most likely the reason why Stewart became such a popular actor.

There’s no doubt the film has dated elements to it, some bad (some of the direction/music/acting is a bit old school) but some brilliant (there’s a scene you just won’t believe where some hired goons deliberately crash their car into another car being driven by children).

Much like all About Eve, this is a film that my friends were very sceptical about, but ended up really enjoying.

4. The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

When people are asked to rate their favourite Disney films, the chances are the list will include the likes of Snow White, The Lion King, Pinocchio, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Toy Story etc etc etc

You can see the films that Disney themselves rate highly by what gets marketed in the Theme Parks.

One film that won’t be on many lists and has probably been forgotten about completely over in Orlando is The Emperor’s New Groove, an oddly animated film about an arrogant young emperor who gets turned into a wise-cracking Llama.

Now, I’m not going to tell you that this is a film of the standard of such classics as The Lion King and Toy Story, because it’s not, but it’s still very good. Unusually for a Disney film, it doesn’t have any songs and I laughed all the way through it.

It’s witty, it’s smart and has a unique look. It also has good voice acting as well, with David Spade and John Goodman playing the lead roles.

And yet despite all of this I think I must be one of the few people who actually remembers it.

5. Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel (2009)

I’m sure anyone who reads this blog knows that I’m a fan of Doctor Who, and so it shouldn’t surprise you that a film with a name like that would be on my list.

I would certainly say though that this film is incredibly under-appreciated because I don’t think it got any press at all. I stumbled across it by accident when looking at a list of films made by BBC Films (which is a sign of quality if ever there was one).

One of the things that surprised me about the film was the cast. I really didn’t think I’d enjoy a film starring the guy off the IT Crowd and Anna ‘I’ve starred in more crappy comedy movies than Leslie Nielson’ Faris, but I did…I really did.

The plot is incredibly clever, flows, makes sense (even for people who probably don’t understand this type of thing like my mum) and is funny. It’s also got a great soundtrack to it as well.

The sad thing for Anna Faris is that this is probably her finest ever film role, one in which she’s not playing a clown or taking part in the most crude humour imaginable. Why is that sad? Because nobody seems to know about it, yet Scary Movie 2 made millions world-wide.

Coming Soon….

Five down, ten to go. Come back for more James Stewart, more Old Films, another animation and a TV movie made purely for ITV.

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Perry Mason: The Case of the Glass Coffin Review (or ‘Any Perry Mason Because They Are All So Formulaic’)

May 27, 2011

It must have been about 10 years ago – maybe more – that BBC One showed all the 80s/90s Perry Mason at lunchtime after Neighbours. For a university student, this an afternoon’s entertainment sorted.

Since then though, they haven’t seen the light of day on terrestrial TV. Instead, whether it be the highs of Diagnosis Murder to the very low lows of Pettrocelli, almost everything else has been shown instead. And ITV tends to just show Columbo (and good for them, because Columbo is the best of the genre by a country mile).

But no Perry Mason.

You can’t even buy it on DVD – and believe me, I tried to get it as a Christmas present for my mum.

This is Perry Mason when he's happy. What an affable looking chap...

So it was with a modicum of excitement that I stumbled upon a full length Perry Mason TV Movie – The Case of the Glass Coffin – on Movies For Men of all channels.

“Brilliant”, I thought “All the Perry Masons are good as far as I remember”.

The Plot

I started to write out the plot of this in fine detail, but then I thought ‘Why bother?’. After all, Perry Mason scripts are mostly very similar.

This is how it goes…

  • There’s about 15 minutes of set up work where someone manages to piss off a fair amount of people to the extent where they end up murdered (This one is about a magician’s assistant who is a total bitch and gets offed during the act)
  • One suspect stands out more than others and is charged with the murder by the upstanding but weary homicide detective, Lt. Brock
  • The person charged just so happens to be a friend of either Perry Mason, his secretary Della Street or his underling/hired muscle/ladies man Ken Malansky, and so Mason decides to take up the case (As it happens, Mason was at the show as a guest of his friend – the magician – who ends up getting charged)

Of course, this is where the prosecution and police should just say ‘Oh for fuck’s sake. He’s obviously innocent so we’ll let him off’. But they don’t. So the next hour of so involves…

  • Mason visiting various other suspects wearing a big black coat and intimidating them with a look. Oh, he knows they might have done it, and they know he knows that they know he knows. And he knows it too.
  • Malansky gets a ‘Sassy Girl/Reporter/Private Investigator’ to go around with and inevitably sleep with off camera towards the end of the episode. He’s also involved in various unnecessary punch-ups as people stand in his way of getting to the truth (in this episode he haa to go out of the city to a small hick town in the backwoods of Colorado, where the same hired goons try to kill him 5 times, and chase him around in a pick-up truck, complete with chase music played on a banjo)
  • Della Street flirts with Mason a bit and shows herself to be the most efficient Secretary in the world (in this episode she had to phone round 258 opticians to try and find if any members of the show got contact lenses that day, and she manages it in a few hours)
  • With numerous potential suspects in the mix, and the trial not going too well, the team finds some unknown piece of evidence that will win them the case.
  • Mason wins the case, not with concrete proof, but rather by cornering some weak-willed sod on that stand and just shouting “You DID do it, didn’t you. Don’t look at anyone else, look at me! It was you!” in a progressively more angry tone until the real killer buckles under the pressure and goes “Yes…yes it was me, and this is how and why I did it”. Usually there’s no real evidence to this, but Mason just scares them into admitting it.
  • Wearily, the prosecution lawyer (and it’s usually the same guy every episode) accepts he’s lost the case and harmed his career even further.
  • There’s a Back At The Ranch-house scene to finish

In this episode, it turned out that the girl who was killed had fled her home town and changed her identity having committed a hit and run murder a few years back. And would you believe

But this is the Perry Mason you don't want to see coming after you. He's not all smiles and sunshine. 'Mon then!

it, the girl whose mother she had killed that night was one of the other assistants to the magician. Of all the coincidences…

Also, this episode finishes with perhaps the most distasteful thing I’ve ever seen. The Magician and his wife can’t have children, so at the end, Mason decides to gift them two of the saddest looking, wheelchair-bound disabled children you’re ever likely to see. As he put it himself, he had the magician’s wife ‘pick them out’ to take home, like they came from a disabled children shop. I was actually taken aback by how deplorable the whole thing was.

Thoughts – The Good (Not Much)

Perry Mason has a cool theme tune.

Raymond Burr is always worthy of a cheer.

But that’s it.

The Bad – The Acting, The Direction and The Writing

Where do I start…

Well, let’s start with the acting. It is pitiful – almost painfully bad.

Some people have the idea that American TV shows are generally more polished than their UK counterparts, but TV really only got the big-budget treatment across the pond in the last 10-15 years. Can you think of ten quality TV shows to come out of American in 1991? Probably not. And even if you can, how do they compare to the output today? You’d likely see the acting and grimace.

From start to finish the acting in this is poor. People inexcusably stumble over their lines and deliver them in such a hammy and ‘am-dram’ way. They also leave pauses to allow them to pout to the camera.

Even Raymond Burr, who was a well respected actor and is head and shoulders above everyone else in the episode, often shows up badly. There’s just so much dead time watching him stare at people in-between lines.

Of course, it’s not helped by the writing or the direction either. They most likely cause the bad acting.

Surely the director would say ‘Sorry Ray love, can we go again’ and try and speed things up a little bit. But no.

The writing calls for cartoon hillbillies in old fashioned saloons, and lines like “You’re in the wrong part of town, partner”, “What’ll it be, stranger” or – when speaking to the local drunk who they’ve sobered up for questioning – “How are you feeling?” “Not good…I’m sober dag-nabbit”. Cringeworthy. Who commissioned this as acceptable?

Worst of the lot – the bit that combined bad writing, direction and acting – was when Malansky’s Woman of the Week says “Oh NO. (pause) They are CHASING us. (pause). What are we going TO DO!!!” I think I rewound that three or four times just to take in how bad it was.

Also, the pacing is all wrong as well.

Does anyone really want to see Ken Malansky get into a fight with the same people, five different times? No. Don’t be absurd. And yet that’s what happens. Presumably Malansky is there to offer female viewers a bit of a thrill, especially when he has one of his fights wearing only boxer shorts, but that’s no excuse.

The whole thing could be made a lot better if it was done in a faster pace and maybe in 50 minutes rather than 120 (including breaks). They would have cut down on so much of the crap and the stalling and perhaps made the whole thing more bearable.

The ‘So Bad It’s Actually Good’ – Plot Resolution

As I say above, every Perry Mason show ends up the same way. He doesn’t appear to have anything to go on when he decides who he’s going to bully into accepting a lethal injection, but once he’s picked his prey, they are for it.

In this episode having interviewed lots of people without it going anywhere, there’s a quick scene with them watching a video of the Magic Show where the murder happened and Mason proclaiming “Well, looks like we’ve got our killer” making almost everything that came before it redundant.

So he calls the girl up to the stand and shouts at her.

And Mason is an intimidating guy. He’s a big old hoss of a man who is almost as wide as he is tall. If he’s shouting at you with his steely gaze then most people would probably admit to the murder just to get the nasty man to stop. Yes, what Mason says to them does almost mean they have no recourse but to admit it, but the question is how he got there?

It’s a bit like someone being handed a mathetical problem to solve and providing the correct answer, but showing no evidence of any work they did to get there.

Stupid, but amusing.

Should You Ever Watch a Perry Mas0n TV Movie?

If you ever stumble across one of these on TV, the most entertained you’ll be is in the last 15 minutes. That is where all the action is, that’s where the unintentional humour is, and that’s where you get to see Mason shouting people into submission.

Beyond that, the pacing of the story is painfully slow, with about 1hr 15mins of killing time, usually with Ken Malansky getting into fights.

I would say these shows are nowhere near as good as I remember. In fact, they are pretty ropey overall. In the 10 or so years since I watched them, American TV has come on leaps and bounds, and there are also a load of other shows of a similar genre that are better.

There’s a reason why these are shown on Movies for Men and not BBC1.

My advice – watch Columbo instead.


Scream? I Didn’t

April 21, 2011

Last Friday saw the nationwide release of Scream 4.

The Scream franchise is something that reminds my social group (all in their late 20s and early 30s) of their Halcyon Days; Degeneration X, South Park, the Dundee University Students Union, Halloween Nights etc. I imagine it’s the same for most people of that age since it currently sits atop the UK Box Office Charts.

And sure enough, my friends – most of whom mump and moan at the mere suggestion of a trip to the rather overpriced cinema – were all like “A new Scream film? I’m there!!!” So we all agreed to go.

The ever bumbling Ghostface is knocked down...

But then it occurred to me – I’ve never seen Scream or any of the sequels.

“You’ve never seen Scream? You can’t mean that!”

But it’s true, I haven’t. It’s just one of these things that has passed me by. I haven’t seen the Karate Kid either come to think of it…

So anyway, I decided that before I see Scream 4 I should at least see the first one, and then maybe 2 and 3.

Plot

Since it was implied that I was the only person in the world  of my age-group not to have already seen it, I’ll assume you know the plot.

But if you don’t, here’s the imdb plot summary

A killer known as “Ghost Face” begins killing off teenagers, and as the body count begins rising, one girl and her friends find themselves contemplating the “Rules” of horror films as they find themselves living in a real-life one.

Thoughts

I’ve had trouble writing this section of the review. It has actually been sitting open on my PC for a couple of days while I’ve tried to work out what to say without rambling.

And again...

So to get to the heart of the matter, the problem with watching Scream in 2011 – especially for the first time – is that is has dated; badly.

Fair enough, 1996 was 15 years ago, but it seems like things made well within the ‘mid-late teen era’ of my demographic shouldn’t look quite so old. It does though. It looks ancient, people have terribly dated clothing and the incidental music is loud and intrusive (thus negating the entire point of ‘incidental’ music). The greatest sign of its age is that mobiles are referred to as “Cellular Telephones” and that the ability to check someone’s phone record is used as a clever way to catch the killer. It’s a bit like the episodes of Columbo made in the 80s and 90s that catch people out because of newfangled technology like ‘Telephone Answering Machines’ and ‘Home Printers’.

1996 is clearly a long time ago.

The one thing that hasn’t aged about Scream is Courtney Cox, mainly because she looked old back then too. Was this woman ever young?

But its not just the look of Scream that had dated – it’s the concept and the effects as well.

As a concept, it’s maybe not fair to be too critical. It would be like criticising Laurel & Hardy for using jokes you’ve seen and heard before. Scream was the film that revitalised the genre – we all know that – but if you’ve seen any horror film made between then and now, you’ll have seen this film before. Naturally, those that followed it expanded upon ‘The Scream Formula’ so it was bound to have dated in that respect.

And again... Seriously, why do these girls not try and attack him once he's down. Or at the very least, disarm him?

In terms of the plot – it seems to rely on the ‘swerve’ of who the Ghostface turns out to be. Now I’m not sure if the ‘swerve’ (i.e. suddenly challenging what the audience has come to believe is the point) was something that wasn’t used all that often back in 1996, but I doubt it was new. By the late 90s though, everything was a swerve. In films, M. Night Shyamalan was the chief culprit, while on TV, step forward Vince Russo. Need I say more than “It’s me Austin! It was me all along” (anyone who knows what I’m talking about will agree on that score). Even in recent films like Unknown, the ‘swerve’ is still a major part of it.

What that does is conditions the viewer to try and guess where and when the swerve is coming, and in Scream, it really isn’t all that difficult. Within 30 seconds of the main cast all appearing together, you know exactly who Ghostface is. By the time Ghostface appears again you’ve worked out that two people are combining to be Ghostface. So you just sit there waiting for the bit that is supposed to be shocking and offer yourself a rather hollow congratulation on ‘working it all out’.

And then there are the effects…

I’m sure at the time, the first scene was considered really scary and gruesome. But since then the quality of special effects have increased greatly and films like Saw and Final Destination have ramped up the gore to a whole new level. It’s got to the point where the viewer is now completely desensitised to stuff like this, and so everything that happens in Scream just seems really tame. While people may have been frightened watching this in 1996, I just sat there chuckling. Maybe that was the desired audience reaction, but I doubt it.

Oh, and one other thing that makes the film seem dated is Ghostface himself. Whether it’s because he’s been the subject of so many parodies or because people have been dressing up as him at Halloween for years now, I just couldn’t take him seriously as he pranced about in his cloak. He comes across about as threatening as Donald Duck.

And on the subject of Ghostface – he’s the most bumbling serial killer ever. While watching the film, take note not only how how many times Whatever Happened To Neve Campbell evades him, but also look at the amount of times he ends up in vulnerable positions having slipped or been knocked down. The people he does kill ultimately deserve all they get for not fighting back. The scene where Whatever Happened To Neve Campbell’s friend gets killed in the garage is the worst example of it. She manages to knock him down three times and each time just prances over to another part of the room allowing him to get back up again. For God’s sake love, kick him in the head while he’s down. That would have

"It's Me Austin. It Was Me All Along". Those were the words that made anyone who saw the WWF Higher Power angle look out for 'The Swerve''. Everywhere. As such, Scream's attempt at a swerve is childsplay.

sorted him out. But no, she tries to escape head first through a cat flat she couldn’t fit through. Dear oh dear.

My final problem is the motivation for Ghostface’s murders. We can understand why he was trying to kill Campbell and through association we can understand why he killed her best mate. He also had to kill the cameraman to protect himself and the motivation for killing the School Principal is obvious.

But why did he kill Drew Barrymore and her boyfriend, and in such a torturous way? Unless I missed something, that made no sense. There didn’t seem to be any motivation for it, other than to start the film with a ‘gruesome’ set piece. But doing things that have no relation to the plot just to give the viewer something to get their teeth into is not something I like. So marks off for that.

One final observation…

When the likes of Party Teen #1 and Reporter With Mask are named in the credits, why is one of the most recognisable actors – who incidentally has a lot of lines – left out? Henry Winkler as the School Principle is uncredited for Scream. That just seems….weird.

Final Summary

Usually I would end with a ‘Should You Watch…’ section, but my understanding is that now that I’ve watched Scream, the entire human race has seen it. So instead, I’ll summarise.

Scream has dated, but in all fairness that isn’t Scream’s fault. A victim of its own success, Scream has been surpassed by the many films that it influenced. Had I seen it before I watched the likes of Saw, I might have found it more gory than it is. Had I not seen almost any other TV or film made in the last 15 years I might have been caught out by the swerve. And had Ghostface not been parodied so many times, I might have found him something other than an amusing cartoon character.

But I have and it was, and therefore Scream just didn’t have the desired effect on me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad…it’s just dated and irrelevant.

Had the teens been played by cast of Dawsons Creek or One Tree Hill I imagine I would have appreciated it far more.

Having said all that, I look forward to seeing Scream 4 to see how they do a film like this today. In the meantime, I think I might just about what happens in Scream 2 and 3 so that I’m caught up.