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Category: HIDDEN GEMS


The Swimmer (1968)


“If you make believe hard enough, it’s true for you…”

When one scours the Burt Lancaster film library, like I did when I cinematically “fell” for the American titan after watching his requisite acclaimed performances in From Here to Eternity (1953) and Judgement at Nuremberg (1961) and his more fun ones, like the circus act (literally) escapade The Flame and the Arrow (1950), it’s nearly impossible to miss The Swimmer, made in 1968 when Burt was 55 years old.

He plays a suburban man who realizes one afternoon in the waning days of summer that his wealthy neighbors form a “river” of swimming pools that run all the way to his own home, and decides promptly that he is going to swim home.

What to make of this plot, I wonder?  How to take it seriously and give it a shot?

Lost in home video obscurity for 50-odd years, Grindhouse Releasing put out a very accessible and loaded DVD, and Blu Ray, packages.  The sterling transfer and immaculate special features, including a multiple-hour documentary on the making with a plethora of interviews, and even a 20-plus minute reading of the original short story by its author John Cheever, bring The Swimmer out of the darkness and into the eyes of a new generation.

It is a wonderful, sometimes harrowing, sometimes spiritual 90-minute masterpiece concerning the mental breakdown of a man used to his own success.

It is an ultimately unique film, as are most entries in my “Hidden Gems” catalog.

Burt spends the length of the film in skimpy dark blue trunks, even disrobing in front of nudist socialites to show the world his sculpted buttocks, and yet his assured acting remains completely on point.  This film and its seemingly bizarre plot never loses sight of its important showpieces: an unusual but intriguing plot, and an actor that inhabits every aspect of his craft demanded to make it believable.

"Here's to sugar on our strawberries..."

“Here’s to sugar on our strawberries…”

There is no actor like Lancaster.  Like Paul Newman (in fact the two were close friends and Newman even came to the set once), he is an Adonis-type, gifted with a timeless full head of hair, beautiful blue eyes, magnificent metabolism and an athlete’s body. At 55 for a man to star in a feature film wearing nothing but a bathing suit, running around with horses, nubile teens and standing nearly stark naked in front of an entire party of people and not generate laughs is a task that today’s major film companies wouldn’t take the time to risk.

Lancaster, along with the perfectionist husband-and-wife team of screenwriter Eleanor and director Fred Perry, craft a very believable film concerning one man’s fall from the heights of material splendor and his sojourn one afternoon where he begins, as we do based on each neighbor and friend’s startling and revealing banter, to realize how his life, and mind, have fallen down all around him.

-EB

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Agora (2009)


“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”  ― Albert Einstein

Set totally in the former cultural center of the world, Alexandria, Egypt,  production and design of the Spanish film Agora is as understated as its main topic: the sudden erosion of polytheism in favor of Christianity in the declining Roman world.

A competent cast powered by beautiful and talented Rachel Weisz, a massive $69 million budget , an Academy Award-winning director (Chilean Alejandro Amenábar, who snagged Best Foreign Language Film gold for 2004’s The Sea Inside) – all elements that normally would not be conducive to Hidden Gem relegation.

And yet Agora is under the radar, thanks to its trouble finding distribution in box office tipping point countries like the U.S.  This is an unfortunate matter, as Agora holds many fantastic features that not only outdo other, better received movies, but will not be seen again in another film.

In today’s Marvel-movie-every-month, CGI-spastic cinematic expulsions, Agora looks glossed up in its aerial views of the most important non-Athens polis of the ancient world and its shiny, hieroglyph-covered columns, but the luster is real.  This is the result of the budget’s majority heading to design and art direction more than anything else, and the story’s quality is heightened totally as a result.

Weisz pilots the movie as Hypatia, the philosopher-scholar woman that is one of history’s lesser-known martyrs, yet one of its most monumental intellectuals.  Young Max Minghella (his best role, by far) and striking Oscar Isaac play her slave and suitor, respectively, though the line blurs as each play roles in the tragedy that unfolds.

Tempestuous storms rage between followers of the old polytheism of Rome and the newly-headstrong Christians and, later, Jews, with Hypatia doing her best to stay out of it, sustained by the study of science.  And yet she, inevitably as are all those who seek to stay out of the fiery winds of overlapping creeds, she’s swept into it.

The turbulent shifts in the ruling religious castes of Alexandria, like the sand that surrounds the ancient port, is made all the more lunatic when, less than 300 years later, Alexandria would fall under the banners of the final monotheistic sect, Islam, where it still lies today.

Agora, taking its title from the ancient town centers of the Greco-Roman epoch, where both learned patrician and lowly slave would congregate, worship and learn, depicts Hypatia as a woman before her time: philosopher-astronomer, agnostic, and even feminist.

But the import of this depiction is not that she is purported to have reached Johannes Kepler’s eliptical-heliocentric hypothesis 1,200 years beforehand, but that the quaking, inherently regressive conduct of religion in what is today the Western European world enact the Dark Ages and forestall enlightenment for nearly a millennium.

Agora‘s dedication to getting each detail exactly right, it’s standout art direction and general cinematography (shot entirely in Malta, some film sets were some of the largest ever crafted on the island) and its integral aspect of inspiring thoughtful discourse on the schism between religion and science without pointing pedantic fingers, make it a modern secret gem of the highest accord.

-EB

Rollerball (1975)


The movie Rollerball is incredibly hard to describe, even when trying to assess its good qualities and its . . . strange ones.

But, most specifically, it’s not like anything you’ve ever seen, and that is often enough to make it a hidden gem.

On paper, James Caan stars as protagonist Jonathan E, the indisuptable veteran star of a vicious, semi-gladitorial obsession “sport” called Rollerball – sort of like a roller derby except with motorcycles, a steel ball, barbed gloves, and attire that would make Judas Priest blush.

In the not-so-distant dystopian future, rollerball has replaced all sport and conflict in a world controlled by faceless corporations centered in particular cities (The energy capital is Houston, the food capital is Chicago, etc.) and Rollerball has become the entire world’s greatest spectacle, and the corporations’ biggest moneymaker.

But, incredibly since he is in the midst of leading his home team of Houston in a push for the finals, Jonathan E is told by his executive chairman (seasoned Mid-Atlantic actor John Houseman) that its time to hang  up his skates and retire.

Jonathan spends most of the film investigating the reason for this and deciding whether to listen or not, and throughout this search some of the most astoundingly bizarre photography of the seventies accompanies:

Executives in business suits take their new harem of women outside and fire plasma pistols at trees in delight, Jonathan’s friend and fellow baller Moonpie gets concussed into a coma in Japan and spends his days encased in a plastic oval, and a jovial, mad librarian (Sir Ralph Richardson!) beats a water-filled, glowing supercomputer when it refuses to properly acknowledge his commands.

Rollerball is an insane spectacle of seventies cinema, and an unmissable one, no matter what you’ve heard about it. The soundtrack consists of eerie sounds and wildly diverse and recognizable classical pieces, the film’s length is easily 10-20 minute too long, and the Rollerball sequences -viciously startling even while they’re somewhat too unfathomable to comprehend – are themselves a backdrop to the utter originality of the film.

WHAT?!?!

Pointlessly remade with Chris Klein in 2002, becoming a sort of sports/action fusion crap (think Biker Boyz meets XXX) without all the underlying, cryptic poltical overtones and corporate villainry.

Don’t Miss: James Caan three years after playing Sonny Corleone strutting around smoking rooms, in and out of beds with ladies, and crushing skulls on the Rollerball track, an apocalyptic God of the Arena, all the time not even seeming to enunciate properly or realize what he’s actually saying.

-EB

A Married Man (1984)


 

A four-part British miniseries aired in the USA in 1984, A Married Man seemed to me at first a usual treatise on the inner turmoil of a middle-aged man dissatisfied with married life and family.

What it became was a rather terrifying spiraling wreck of a narration, where title character Jim Strickland (Anthony Hopkins) lamentably pursues a young siren with disastrous results, and then is pursued by a rich, intelligent socialite that inspires him to pursue politics . . . with deadly results.

A Married Man represents two awesome things.  First, it exemplifies Anthony Hopkins Eighties British work, where his acting was truly inspired and he was taking difficult roles each and every time.  After the overwhelming success of The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, Hopkins’ roles, as he became more established, were considerably less gutsy. Second, A Married Man is a great British serial at the time of some rather drab soap-opera style stuff.  Nowadays the thought of a television miniseries brings to mind avoidable Lifetime Channel “The Woman Who Didn’t Know She Was Dead”- style garbage, but A Married Man brings politics, Thatcher-era social issues and the trauma of mid-life crises into a well-written, shocking drama fueled by great performances.

A Married Man is near-impossible to find on Region 2 (USA) DVD, and flies under the radar of anyone but the most avid Hopkins fans (guilty as charged); thus it is, truly, a hidden gem.

Don’t Miss: Ciaran Madden as the sublime, unfortunate Clare Strickland, who earns her stripes silently stomaching her husband’s silent happiness, and in one revealing scene in particular, reveals her own deep-hidden desires.  Unfortunately, nearly every one of the supporting actors’ careers died out after the decade, except for Julian Sands in a small role – stoically playing Clare’s younger brother, an underachiever who still yet finds the happiness in life that John searches vainly for.

-EB

A scene of immense shock and  horror that will take you by surprise.

 

Storm Warning (1951)


 

A gutsy, anti-bigotry film about a woman (Ginger Rogers), who plans to a trip to visit her sister in a town that could be anywhere in America, only to witness a killing by a cadre of hooded Klansman.  She finds her sister (Doris Day), but discovers that her sister’s new husband, whose child she’s carrying, is the killer.

Ronald Reagan exercises his legal, good-guy chops as the crusader D.A., trying to convince Rogers – the sole witness – to take the stand, although she knows her admittance will doom her brother-in-law.

Although the ending scene is decided over-the-top and incredibly bleak, Storm Warning is amazingly ahead of its time both in vision and in context.  No mention of the Ku Klux Klan’s war on blacks comes into play, but the advocating albeit simplistic message is startling in its statement: violent ignorance is all around us, amongst those we know who would rather hide their faces, and that seeking justice is most difficult when those aware are too afraid to stand up for the wronged.

Don’t Miss:  Steve Cochran as the brother-in-law.  A veteran villain – James Cagney’s traitorous buddy in 1949’s White Heat – Cochran is so diabolical it’s hard to sit still.  He drips with greasy lies, unconscionable ignorance, and lecherous loathing.  He’s so effective he automatically qualifies for Top 50 Villains all-time, maybe even Top 25.

 

-EB