Archive for April, 2012

UNDER THE RADAR – The Keep and The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai: Across The 8th Dimension

Little film gems which escaped wide attention and perhaps yours too.

by greg moss

Under The Radar is a semi-regular post in which I bring to light little-seen films, which got lost in the crowd due to lousy distribution or were misunderstood at the time of their release, but which deserve to be seen for one reason or another.

First up this week …

THE KEEP (1983)

Directed by Michael Mann (Thief, Manhunter, Heat). Screenplay by Mann, based on the novel by F. Paul Wilson. It stars Jurgen Prochnow, Scott Glenn, Alberta Watson, Gabriel Byrne and Sir Ian McKellen.

A German army garrison, occupying a medieval Romanian fortress during World War II, find themselves picked off one by one by a terrifying force of evil. It is up to a mysterious ethereal stranger to bannish this ancient evil and spare humanity from unspeakable horrors.

Why it’s worth seeing:

Mann’s second feature (after his 1981 James Caan-starring heist thriller Thief), The Keep is a film which appears oddly out of place in the director’s oeuvre and one which Mann himself has seemingly ‘swept under the carpet’. It remains his only feature still to receive an official release on dvd (let alone blu-ray).

And yet, ironically, this has possibly worked in its favour, as it has gained somewhat of a cult following over the years.

As with all of Mann’s features, The Keep is visually sumptuous, with atmospheric lensing by Alex Thomson and surreal production design by John Box (Sorcerer) it evokes memories of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, in terms of creating a haunting dream-like ambience, which stays with you long after it has ended.

It was Mann’s intent to create ‘a fable for adults’ – one which broached the subject of absolute evil in the context of what was happening in Germany in the early years of World War II. In this way, he pretty much abandoned the novel’s Gothic tropes and opted instead to explore – for want of a better term – ‘the inherent potential of evil in men’.

In this respect, the film is a triumph – as it does indeed delineate the difference between the ordinary regular German soldier (Prochnow’s empathetic Woermann) and the psychopathic black-shirt Nazi Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne).

Having never studied German history in high school – I was never aware there was a difference or that there were indeed elements within the regular German army who harboured feelings of dissent against Hitler’s regime.

So, in my mind at least, Mann achieved his intent.

And he really should be applauded for this.

Yeah – but is it scary?

Well … not particularly.

But there ARE moments which quicken the pulse – particularly the pivotal scene where the evil is released – a beautifully orchestrasted sequence made all the more effective by the use of music by Tangerine Dream.

But then, The Keep isn’t meant to be a horror-fest  – as in the novel.

It’s more like a bad dream – as opposed to an all-out horror.

It is undeniably unsettling, and yet there are moments of sublime visual poetry – as in the scene where Molasar (the entity, not yet fully-formed) rescues Alberta Watson from a couple of Nazi soldiers intending to have their way with her. The seamless integration of music and visual effects (Molasar is portrayed as an imploding collumn of smoke with glowing eyes) creates a mesmerizing sequence of startling beauty.

As far as the actors go, Jurgen Prochnow gives it his all – a standout performance.

He outshines the rest of the cast.

Summing up –

It’s a real shame Mann seems to have abandoned The Keep, as it seemed, at the time, to have been a highly personal project. Which is perhaps why he has indeed left it buried in obscurity.

Well worth a look though, if you can find it.

Next up …

THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI: ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION (1984)

Debut feature directed by W.D. Richter (screenwriter – Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers 1978, Dracula 1979, Big Trouble In Little China). Written by Earl Mac Rauch. It stars Peter Weller, Ellen Barkin, John Lithgow, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd and Clancy Brown.

Just how do you describe this crazy movie in just a few lines?

Um … okay … how ‘bout this –

Scientist, brain surgeon, test pilot, inventor, rock star and all-round amazing dude, Buckaroo Banzai, must recover a stolen invention of his own design in order to stop a band of renegade alien beings from the 8th dimension (all named John) in returning home and overthrowing their own planet.

Why it’s worth seeing:

So what the hell exactly IS this film?

Well, essentially, it’s a comedy with science fiction overtones – played absolutely straight.

As Richter stated at the time of the film’s release, his aim was to drop the audience into a completely realised world, without providing any explanation or backstory to events as they unfold. Don’t get me wrong – there IS logic to everything which transpires, however, it is up to the viewer to pay close attention to every moment and every throwaway line of dialogue (which isn’t difficult, as virtually every line is a quoteable gem in itself).

It was precisely this ‘outside the square’ concept which bamboozled the distributor’s marketing department – they had no idea how to effectively promote the film.

The result being –

It never found an audience.

I remember seeing it in a small theatre, with only one other person present!

Buckaroo Banzai is yet another example of a film which was misunderstood at the time of its release, but which was essentailly ahead of its time and is only in recent years (thanks to dvd) being appreciated for the entertainingly clever hoot it is.

Highly recommended.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes right-brained people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

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UNDER THE RADAR – Streets Of Fire and Manhunter

Little film gems which escaped wide attention and perhaps yours too.

by greg moss

Under The Radar is a semi-regular post in which I bring to light little-seen films, which got lost in the crowd due to lousy distribution or were misunderstood at the time of their release, but which deserve to be seen for one reason or another.

First up this week …

STREETS OF FIRE (1984)

Directed by Walter Hill (The Warriors, Southern Comfort, 48 hrs). Screenplay by Hill and Larry Gross (48 hrs). It stars Michael Pare, Diane Lane, Willem Dafoe, Amy Madigan and Rick Moranis.

Rock diva Ellen Aim is kidnapped by outlaw motorcycle gang The Bombers and it is up to Ellen’s former flame and soldier of fortune Tom Cody to come rescue her.

Why it’s worth seeing:

A stylish neon-lit urban western, Streets Of Fire is Walter Hill’s attempt to make a film for young people.

As Hill himself states in the soundtrack album liner notes …

Streets Of Fire, is, by design, comic book in orientation, mock-epic in structure, movie-heroic in acting style, operatic in visual style and cowboy-cliche in dialogue. I tried to make what I would have thought was a perfect movie when I was in my teens – I put in all the things I thought were great then and which I still have great affection for, custom cars, kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets and questions of honor.”

Hill’s intention is admirable and his explanation goes a long way in explaining why the film failed to find an audience with young people in the mid 1980’s.

Perhaps he misjudged what appealed to his target audience in the decade of ‘Me’.

Despite being billed as a ‘Rock & Roll Fable’, the film is by no means a ‘musical’ in the traditional sense (ie: characters bursting into song mid-sentence) and this is a misconception which needs to be addressed. Yes, music is intrinsic to the piece (with a score by Ry Cooder and songs by Jim Steinman), but it is merely the glue which binds it all together. The film was unfairly judged at the time, as being nothing more than an extended music video (much like the accusations levelled at Russell Mulcahy’s Razorback – also produced in 1984).

But, as the intervening years have shown, the highly-stylized MTV editing (which cuts TO the music) is derigeuer twenty years later – which ironically (despite the 80’s hairdo’s) gives the film a familiar contemporary feel.

I know Streets Of Fire will divide a lot of people, but it is a fascinating curio well worth a look.

Next up …

MANHUNTER (1986)

Directed by Michael Mann. Screenplay by Mann, based on the novel Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. Starring William Petersen, Tom Noonan, Stephen Lang, Joan Allen and Brian Cox.

FBI agent Will Graham must consult with his dreaded foe Hannibal Lektor in order to capture a serial killer known as The Tooth Fairy, risking his sanity in the process.

Why it’s worth seeing:

A stylish thriller from Michael Mann, which is now recognised as being far superior to its (overrated) oscar-winning stablemate Silence Of The Lambs, and indeed the Brett Ratner remake Red Dragon – not to mention the abominable Ridley Scott gross-out Hannibal (don’t get me started on that mean-spirited awful piece of shite).

Manhunter has much to admire.

For starters, it is a beautiful-looking film, thanks to Dante Spinotti’s widescreen cinematography and Mel Bourne’s sparse, clean-edged production design.

It has a look all its own.

And, as with all of Michael Mann’s features and indeed his TV series Miami Vice – his choice of music is a major part of its appeal. Here he employs three existing songs by UK primal funk outfit Shriekback for key scenes to great effect – Evaporation for Petersen’s stake-out of the murdered family’s home in the woods, This Big Hush for the love scene between Dollarhide and his blind lover (Joan Allen) and Coelocanth for the tiger-stroking scene at the zoo. Iron Butterfly’s classic rock track In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida also makes a surprise appearance during the final confrontation between Petersen and Tom Noonan’s killer.

Speaking of Tom Noonan, he is mesmerizing as Dollarhide. Both terrifying and sympathetic, it is difficult not to feel conflicted when his heart is broken.

And despite the grisly subject-matter, this film is refreshingly devoid of overt violence and gore, instead relying on atmosphere to create tension.

Highly recommended.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes right-brained people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

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UNDER THE RADAR – Sorcerer and Miracle Mile

Little film gems which escaped wide attention and perhaps yours too.

by greg moss

Under The Radar is a semi-regular post in which I bring to light little-seen films, which got lost in the crowd due to lousy distribution or were misunderstood at the time of their release, but which deserve to be seen for one reason or another.

First up this week …

SORCERER (1977)

Directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection), based on the novel The Wages Of Fear by Georges Arnaud with a screenplay by Walon Green (The Wild Bunch).

It stars Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal, Ramon Bieri and Amidou.

In a bid to escape a squalid Latin American hell hole of a town, four desperate fugitives volunteer to transport a haul of unstable nitroglycerine aboard a couple of rickety old trucks across two hundred miles of treacherous jungle terrain in order to extinguish an oil fire.

Why it’s worth seeing:

Unfairly pulled from its initial release to make way for the sudden success of Star Wars in 1977, this unrelenting thriller never stood a chance at the box office, earning just $5.9 million on a budget of $22 million. And it’s a shame, as the film is truly an intensely suspenseful experience. Having seen the original 1952 French version The Wages Of Fear on the big screen in a re-release in the late 80’s, I can safely say Friedkin’s film is far superior in terms of its verisimilitude and sheer audacity. The suspension bridge-crossing sequence (all done for real) has to be seen to be believed.

A suitably eerie electronic score by German band Tangerine Dream only heightens the  tension.

And it’s probably the muddiest, wettest film you’ll ever see.

A lost masterpiece long overdue for reappraisal. Highly recommended.

And still in thriller-mode …

MIRACLE MILE (1989)

Written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt. Starring Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham.

Harry, an incurable romantic, finds the girl of his dreams, only to mistakenly receive a phone call telling him a nuclear attack has been launched on the United States. Harry has less than an hour to find his dream girl and get the Hell out of LA before the big one drops.

Why it’s worth seeing:

What would you do if you only had an hour to live? This is the subtext of this clever race-against-time romantic thriller.

Set almost entirely in the down-town strip of LA known as the Miracle Mile, during the wee hours of the morning, the film effectively conveys a sense of time and place much like Scorsese’s (again underrated) After Hours. The escalation of pandemonium as the city awakens to the news of imminent nuclear attack is masterfully orchestrated by De Jarnatt. Anthony Edwards gives a  fine performance and the score by Tangerine Dream (again) gives the film an unrelenting momentum which will leave you breathless by the end.

It’s interesting to note, De Jarnatt’s screenplay came close to being the script for Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983, before Spielberg decided against a stand-alone story and instead went with the anthology format at the eleventh hour.

Once again, highly recommended.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes right-brained people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

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UNDER THE RADAR – The Handmaid’s Tale and The Dark Backward

Little film gems which escaped wide attention and perhaps yours too.

by greg moss

Under The Radar will be a semi-regular post in which I bring to light little-seen films, which got lost in the crowd due to lousy distribution or were misunderstood at the time of their release, but which deserve to be seen for one reason or another.

First up this week …

THE HANDMAID’S TALE (1989)

Directed by The Tin Drum helmer Volker Schlondorff, based on a novel by Margaret Atwood with a screenplay by Harold Pinter. It stars Natasha Richardson, Faye Dunaway, Aidan Quinn, Elizabeth McGovern and Robert Duvall.

A cautionary fable set in a near future America where the religious right has seized power after chemical toxins have caused infertility in 99 percent of the female population. The remaining one percent of fertile females are rounded up by the state and forced to bear offspring for members of high society.

Why it’s worth seeing:

I never really had an opinion on Natasha Richardson one way or the other, but she’s really good in this. In fact, the entire cast is excellent. And it was a surprise to hear Fine Young Cannibals’ ‘Johnny Come Home’ featured on the soundtrack in one particular scene.

Virging on satire (in a Starship Troopers kind of way) without crossing the line, this is a handsome, classy, thought-provoking film; a feminist’s nightmare which guys can also enjoy.

Highly recommended.

And from one extreme to the other …

THE DARK BACKWARD (1991)

Debut feature written and directed by Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City). Starring Judd Nelson, Bill Paxton, Wayne Newton, James Caan, Rob Lowe and Lara Flynn Boyle.

A lurid dark comedy set in a bizarre ‘future 50’s alternate LA’ where Judd Nelson is a garbage man with unfounded aspirations of becoming a stand-up comic, only to have a third arm grow out of his back and ruin everything – or does it?

Why it’s worth seeing:

The underbelly of Hollywood show biz was never this sleazy and weird.

Aside from the Brazil-like production design and Lynchian milieu, the big draw card is Bill Paxton’s OTT performance as Judd Nelson’s best friend, Gus – a gleefully perverse and disgusting chubby-loving, rancid chicken-scoffing ‘human cockroach’.

You’ll never open the fridge door again.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes right-brained people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.

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