Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Ten (Because) 1990s Cult Films

There are a lot of different ways to define "cult movie," I guess, but I'm going with Pure Cinema's more loose definition that includes movies that either weren't hits at the time of their release or have been forgotten or overshadowed in the years since their release, and have acquired a devoted (though perhaps small) following. So not necessarily "weird" movies. Though some of these certainly fall into that category too.

#10. What Dreams May Come (1998)

This won an Oscar for visual effects, and while it's not the *best* movie in terms of storytelling, it's a really remarkable visual feast. The ideas about the afterlife (greatly simplified from the book on which it is based) are very thought-provoking, especially the notion that it's radically different for everyone. I think everyone who at least has heard of this movie has seen the picture of Robin Williams walking through the painting (see above), but the image that most stuck with me was the vision of hell as an upside down cathedral. The plot here is pretty forgettable, but that's not what you watch this movie for. (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

#9. The Swan Princess (1994)

I'd only vaguely heard of this movie before its love song "Far Longer Than Forever" was nominated for a Golden Globe, but just a few seconds of that song made me want to see the movie immediately. (Seriously, it's gorgeous.) A loose adaptation of the ballet Swan Lake, the movie itself is nothing groundbreaking, and the animation is barely above television-grade for the time, but it has some great voice acting (including Jack Palance as the villain Rothbart), and the love story is actually rather nice -- a kick in the teeth to the "love at first sight" and "who's the fairest" tropes. (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

#8. Beautiful Girls (1996)

This movie is responsible for an obsession I had for quite a while in the 90s with Timothy Hutton. He is at the height of scruffy, sideburned, piano-playing sexiness here. The rest of the cast is a who's who of 90s actors -- Matt Dillon, Lauren Holly, Mira Sorvino, Rosie O'Donnell, Noah Emmerich, Michael Rappaport, a young(ish) David Arquette, and a quite young Natalie Portman. Yeah, it's another movie about men who don't want to grow up (most clearly exemplified by the not-as-creepy-as-it-sounds mutual crush between Hutton and Portman), but the cast has great chemistry and the movie has a lot of charm. Plus a GREAT soundtrack which is basically the Big Chill soundtrack of the 90s. It also has this beautiful profanity-laden rant from O'Donnell about beauty standards, which is worth the price of admission all by itself. (Available on Amazon and iTunes; soundtrack available on iTunes)

#7. Innocent Blood (1992)

There was a pretty huge vampire movie that came out in the 90s, but despite its supernatural cred, I'd hardly call Interview with the Vampire a "cult" movie. Innocent Blood -- John Landis's semi-comic take on vampires -- is another matter altogether. Not quite as brilliant as his werewolf movie the decade before, Innocent Blood nonetheless has a lot going for it. It was a cool idea to cross vampirism with mafia culture and equate being made a vampire with being "made" in the mafia sense. Loads of great actors in this -- Anthony LaPaglia, Robert Loggia, Don Rickles, Chazz Palminteri, Luis Guzman, Angela Bassett, plus some cameos from horror icons Tom Savini, Sam Raimi, Dario Argento and, err, Linnea Quigley (hey, if you're a horror fan, you know why she's a legend). (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

#6. The Quick and the Dead (1995)

Come for the DiCaprio, stay for the subversion of the western genre. This movie stars Sharon Stone, still riding the post-Basic Instinct wave, but here, refreshingly, she isn't (that) sexualized and instead plays an atypical female for a western -- a vigilante who has arrived in town to seek revenge for her father's murder many years before. LOADS of great actors in this -- Gene Hackman, Russell Crowe before he was a big movie star, the aforementioned DiCaprio, Pat Hingle, Keith David, Lance Henriksen, Tobin Bell, Raynor Scheine, Gary Sinise, and Woody Strode, fer cryin' out loud! I love that this movie never takes itself too seriously, and that it kind of knows how ridiculous it frequently is, but everyone in the movie is playing it totally straight. (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

#5. Cronos (1993)

The feature film debut of Guillermo del Toro and a brilliant addition to the vampire lore. An old antique dealer finds a device that makes him younger but has the unfortunate side effect of causing him to crave blood. Like so many of del Toro's horror movies, this has a lot of emotion and the real power in the horror elements is that you care so much about these characters and are genuinely horrified to see bad things happen to them. Don't get me wrong, there's also a good deal of artfully rendered blood and gore, but there's a tragic quality to the horror that pushes it past mere gladiator-style entertainment. There's an especially poignant relationship with the man and his granddaughter that I find really compelling to watch. (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

#4. Tales from the Hood (1995)

I saw this for the first time recently and really loved it. I remember thinking at the time it came out and I was seeing ads for it that it seemed like a dumb horror parody like so many that had come before, but it is definitely not that. Sure, there's a bit of the absurd here, but that's true of most horror in general. No, what this is is some brilliant commentary, specifically from the perspective of black America. There are bits in this that are still pretty danged relevant, starting with the opening tale where a black activist is killed by the police. The pièce de résistance, however, is "KKK Comeuppance," in which a racist southern senator is terrorized by a bunch of creepy dolls that hold the souls of previously tortured slaves. (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

#3. Cookie's Fortune (1999)

It is a CRIME that this isn't available to buy or rent. Even the Wikipedia page is half-ass. This is an Altman film, with his characteristically massive all-star cast. Let me just lay some of these names on you -- Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Ned Beatty, Courtney B. Vance, Charles S. Dutton, Patricia Neal, Donald Moffat, Lyle Lovett, Chris O'Donnell, Liv Tyler, and musicians Rufus Thomas and Ruby Wilson. It's set (and was filmed) in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and is legit one of my favorite crime films. The story begins with the titular Cookie (Patricia Neal in her last film, save one), who kills herself because she's bored of being a widow. She's found by her niece (Glenn Close), who sets about trying to make Cookie's death look like a murder -- mainly to spare the family the embarrassment of a suicide but also to set herself up in the family mansion. This is wickedly funny, and is one of those rare films about the south that doesn't feel exploitative or mocking. (Tragically not available, even for sale, except used copies; trailer on YouTube.)

#2. Dead Again (1991)

The closest to "shipping" real people I've ever been was with Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. They made several films together and were one of the few real-life couples who actually had insane onscreen chemistry. Nothing tops the spark in Much Ado About Nothing, but Dead Again comes close. This is essentially a crime thriller, but it also has definite noir elements and is a sort of romantic fantasy? Emma Thompson plays a woman with amnesia, and Branagh is a detective who's trying to help her uncover who she is. This movie is a pretty cool example of a "past lives" plot, and through past life regression hypnotherapy, Thompson's and Branagh's characters become embroiled in a decades old love story and murder mystery which we see in black and white flashbacks. Noteworthy supporting players include Derek Jacobi, Robin Williams, Andy Garcia, and Wayne Knight. (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

#1. The Last Days of Disco (1998)

Boy oh boy do I love this movie. If you liked Love and Friendship, here's Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny directed by Whit Stillman nearly 20 years earlier. Though the story largely revolves around Beckinsale and Sevigny, there is a host of memorable and well-defined characters. Like most of Stillman's films, this is a movie where smart people sit around and talk a lot. There is perhaps no greater film conversation than the characters' discussion of troublesome archetypes in Lady and the Tramp. Maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but I love everything about this movie -- the early 80s fashion, the music, the use of Scrooge McDuck as a come-on, and the final shot of two people unironically shimmying to non-existent disco music on an elevated train. (Available on Amazon and iTunes)

Monday, July 10, 2017

Five (Because) High School Movies

One of my favorite podcasts right now is Pure Cinema, where most weeks the two hosts pick a theme or genre and give their respective "five because" list -- not five favorites, not the five best, just five because. Almost every episode inspires me to make my own "five because" list, but this week I actually did it.

There are a BUNCH of super obvious choices for this that I tried to avoid -- much of the John Hughes oeuvre, all those "take a literature classic and set it in high school" movies (sorry, Clueless), and Carrie. I tried instead for some deep cuts, or at least semi-deep or underappreciated.

So here goes. My "five because" high school movies:

#5: Grease 2 (1982)

Deal with it. While you'll get no argument from me that the music in the original Grease is definitely superior, as a whole, Grease 2 is where it's at for me. I think the story is genuinely better, and oh hey, it's actually FEMINIST. It  probably made up more of the image of what I thought high school would be like than any other teen movie I saw before I was actually in high school. And while the songs aren't that great -- some terrible, others terrible-tastic -- they're still catchy and I enjoy singing along to them. The weakest parts of the movie are when it tries to connect to the original, and I sort of wish this had been its own movie and not part of the Grease-verse at all, but the Pink Ladies and T-Birds dynamics are pretty essential to the plot. Whatever else I could say about the movie, though, Stephanie Zinoni is one of my life heroes. "Yeah, I'm free every day. It's in the constitution." (Streaming on Netflix US)

#4: Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Saddest reading of a Wordsworth poem EVER. One of Natalie Wood's best performances ("I'M NOT SPOILED, MOM!"), one of Warren Beatty's best performances, and among the pantheon of great bittersweet love stories. A lot of it takes place outside of the high school -- this could just as easily be part of a mental illness/institution movie list -- but it's still firmly in the high school milieu. Weirdly, this has a connection in my brain to another high school flick of the 60s, Teenage Mother. No, wait--really! They're both movies where a whole lot of the heartache and drama could have been avoided if people weren't so hung up about sex. This is a movie about the tug between what you want and what's expected of you, and dang if I don't get choked up when Warren Beatty is trying to explain to his dad that he wants to be a rancher and not a businessman. We're told in The Breakfast Club that when we grow up, our hearts die, but I don't think that's true and this movie is a great rebuttal to that. It's not that your heart dies; it's that the pull of responsibility and traditional adult roles are almost always too strong to keep fighting against. (Available to rent on iTunes/Amazon)

#3: All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

And now for something completely different. A lot of high school movies are also horror movies. There's lots of great low-hanging fruit in the High School Hell subgenre -- Carrie, Scream, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the movie you might think this is a ripoff of but it isn't, Jennifer's Body. All Cheerleaders Die is actually a fairly original and entertaining movie, and the horror comes as much from what these characters are willing to do to each other (in terms of high school backstabbery and revenge) as from any of the supernatural or gory stuff. It's co-directed and co-written by Lucky McKee, so if you liked May and The Woods and his episodes of Masters of Horror (particularly Sick Girl), this might be right up your alley. (Streaming on Netflix US)

#2: Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971)

An unusual mashup of teen sex comedy and murder mystery -- think American Pie meets Scream -- with Rock Hudson as a horny (and decidedly straight) football coach, Telly Savalas as an intrepid detective, James "Scotty" Doohan as his partner, Roddy McDowall as a beleaguered principal, Angie Dickinson as a sexy substitute teacher, Keenan Wynn as an inept police chief, John David Carson as a cute but awkward teenager with chronic priapism, and more absurdly beautiful women than should statistically be possible in a single high school. This movie is objectifying as all get-out, but it doesn't bother me that much considering the time it was made and the movie's other elements.  I love how audacious this movie is; the juxtaposition of genres alone is something that shouldn't work but absolutely does.

#1: Sing (1989)

High school was tough for me, as it was for nearly everyone, but it was made more tolerable by my taking part in artistic pursuits (in my case, marching band, winterguard, and madrigals). This movie is based on a real thing that is still going on in high schools in New York City -- student-run musical productions called "SING!" that typically pit classes against each other in competition -- and since seeing it in my own high school years, it's low-key one of my favorite musicals. The movie takes place at a school in Brooklyn that's facing closure in a community that's crumbling, but they want to put on one more SING! show because it's an important event not just for the school but for the community at large. There's a sweet opposite-sides-of-the-tracks romance, and several genuinely good songs (okay, "Birthday Suit" is hella cheesy, but "Romance" is lovely and all the SING! numbers are great, especially the heart-stirring "One More Time," which feels like a classic David Foster tune, and "We'll Never Say Goodbye," the greatest school song that never was). A lot of the movie is dour because these people's lives are tough, but that only reinforces the joy of the movie's last act, when the community gets together to cheer on the next generation, even against the admonition of the school board. The movie features Lorraine Bracco *just before* she was in Goodfellas, and even Patti Labelle in a minor role, but most of the rest of the cast is made up of lesser-knowns. It's hard to acquire, unfortunately, but the whole thing is on YouTube.