Monday, March 17, 2008

Underrated, Underappreciated Movies, Day 4: Fearless (Jeff Bridges)

Today's Selection:
Fearless (1993)

Fearless, not to be overshadowed by or mistaken for by Jet Li's "last" movie, is Peter Weir's tenth directorial effort. It's about a man who survives a plane crash and finds himself completely unable to experience fear of any form - physical, emotional, social. A highly positive critical reception didn't mean much to its distributors. Getting a "wide" release of 749 theaters on November 5th, 1993, the movie pulled in a domestic 7 million dollars - scant, but impressive, given its rather small release.

What Turned Them Away?

- Size of release.
Perhaps this is because I wasn't aware of much of anything back in 1993 (I was five years old, bite me), but there's really no reason that this received the crappy little release that it did. 750 theaters? I guess not every movie merits the 1800 theaters that Robocop 3 snuck into that same weekend ( Or the nearly 2000 that Look Who's Talking Now decided to stink up ( I know that we bemoan how American movies are dying but let's be honest - things like this have always been popular. Fearless was never meant to be seen by the masses.

- Jeff Bridges's character. The handful of poor dumb bastards who ended up in the wrong theater may have found themselves surprised to see Jeff Bridges playing an emotionally contorted, almost superhuman sociopath, instead of Kirstie Alley or robot explosions. He is a fascinating character, but a rather difficult one to like, and I can't imagine a lot of people giving him that chance. He is really a prick for the first hour or so of the movie; only once he begins his journey to heal himself and another woman is he redeemed. I'm not sure a lot of people made it that far.

What Should Have Kept Them?

+ Jeff Bridges's character.
Max Klein is a man almost completely unique in the world of cinema. Before his accident, he seems to have been a loving father, competent businessman and all-around decent person. After it...he's something totally bizarre. His survival seems to have unlocked something in both his mind and body that completely prevents him from feeling any sort of fear. He screams at people he barely knows just for the hell of it, eats foods he's fatally allergic to with no repercussions, and does whatever he damn well pleases. Some of his actions may come off as unsympathetic or shocking to a viewer, but we have to look at them without our own cultural guards up. The things he does are totally removed from the way society has conditioned him; he is humanity at its root. Selfish.

The movie is largely about Max (and his interactions with another survivor who lost her baby in the accident), and Jeff Bridges does this bizarre figure justice. He sells Max as a sort of Crazy Jesus, alternating between calm and completely irrational. A lot of his actions may seem bizarre, but make almost perfect sense once you re-examine them, and Bridges is a really great guide for this kind of evaluating. You can't NOT watch him, and the movie demands that sort of attention from you - otherwise, the payoff wouldn't work. You wouldn't understand what he does.

+ The direction. Peter Weir gets a lot less attention than he deserves; his bigger, more general (but no less great) Hollywood movies like Witness and Master and Commander are widely-seen, but the smaller ones like this and Picnic at Hanging Rock seem to slip under the radar. His hand is just as steady and masterful in this film as in either of his blockbusters. His choices of visuals are unforgettable, such as a burning cornfield full of wounded, dead, terrified people, and a car slamming full-force into a brick wall in a cloud of broken glass and metal. His use of music is sparing, which makes its appearances all the more remarkable (see below). And the performances he draws out of his actors, like Bridges, Isabella Rossellini, and the Oscar-nominated Rosie Perez, are uniformly stunning. He's a real Renaissance director, talented in many fields and lacking in none.

+ The ending. Without hyperbole, I can safely say this movie has one of the greatest endings of all time. Obviously, elaborating too much would be spoilery, but the confluence of visuals, music, and emotional impact is just enlightening. Absolutely unforgettable.

Fearless, unlike my previous three selections, isn't widely-hated or misunderstood. It's simply great, which a lot of people have yet to recognize. You really owe it to yourself to watch this movie, no matter who you are or what genres you're interested in. If you can bring yourself to accept the initially dubious decisions that Jeff Bridges makes, you will be paid off with a moving, scintillating, dynamic parable.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Underrated, Underappreciated Movies, Day 3: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Today's Pick:
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the movie predecessor to Joss Whedon's smash hit television series, was also his first major writing credit (aside from a few episodes of Roseanne, but who cares about that show). It got critically reviled and publicly ignored, holding a 30% on Rottentomatoes and a 5.3 overall rating on IMDB, and pulled down a 16 million dollar theatrical run.

What Turned Them Away?

- Uh...the whole thing. Honestly, this movie is kind of a mess, and it would be a challenge for me to convince you otherwise. It's basically Heathers with vampires, and though it doesn't speak much for its originality, just try and tell me that that isn't a winning formula in and of itself. The movie never quite lives up to its premise, though, What it ends up being is a sanitized, theater-friendly packaging of healthy girl power and unselfish altruism coming from people you'd never expect it from. These very serious themes end up clashing with the first hour of the movie, which is a bizarre mixture of fluffy Valley Girl comedy and bizarre satire.

What Should Have Kept Them?

+ It may be a mess, but it's a very watchable one. I seriously can't imagine anyone sitting through this movie without cracking a smile or laughing, whether it's from the humiliating way the movie has aged or one of the movie's legitimately amusing moments. Donald Sutherland is taking himself entirely too seriously (of course), but it's all comically dispelled when Buffy asks him if he has any gum during a long huffy monologue about evil powers. And watching Buffy surreptitiously look for her first vampire to kill while walking through a dark alley and singing "Feelings" is one of the most surreal, amusing moments I've had in a while.

And even if you don't find these kinds of things funny, the movie is simply bad enough to enjoy in the MST3K style. Where most bad movies generally take themselves too seriously to torment, and most "camp" movies do it to themselves to the point where it actually gets tiresome, Buffy strikes the perfect balance. I really think there's something in this movie to please everyone, if they're willing to buck up and give it a shot.

+ The evolution of Joss Whedon. For those who are fans of any of Joss Whedon's other efforts, it's interesting to see where the master got his start - from some twisted rendition of anti-undead feminism to writing ratings gold (or in the case of Firefly, quickly-canceled but well-loved gold). And though I'm sure the studio nerfed it all to hell, there are glimmers of Whedon's trademark cleverness scattered throughout the movie. In the hands of anyone else, this would have been unwatchable on any level.

I classify Buffy the Vampire Slayer as underappreciated because I think people took it way too seriously, as they still seem to. Maybe it had been billed as a legitimate action/comedy flick 15 years ago - I wouldn't know - but in this day and age, it best serves its purpose as a laughable/laughably bad excursion into...vampire comedy? Yeah. I make no promises with this one but I'm sure some of you could find it in your heart to give it a shot.