Friday, July 25, 2008

5 Underrated Gems

Since my last list was about movies I thought were overrated, I thought I should do one about movies that are underrated. Again - my opinion only. You're welcome to disagree.
Bringing Up Baby - Howard Hawks' 1938 screwball comedy is my personal favorite movie, but I am constantly surprised to find that so many people aren't familiar with it. Devilishly handsome Cary Grant plays paleontologist David Huxley, who has just found an "intercostal clavicle" bone that will complete the dinosaur skeleton he's been working so hard to restore. Katherine Hepburn plays zany heiress Susan Vance, who has taken a shine to the stuffy, albeit gorgeous, scientist. The plot involves a tame leopard (the titular Baby); a pompous big-game hunter; Susan's wealthy dowager aunt; a vicious leopard that's escaped from the circus and a crazy Terrier who has stolen David's fossil. Grant (commonly thought to have had a long-standing affair with cowboy star Randolph Scott), while wearing Susan's feathery bathrobe utters the now infamous line, "I've suddenly gone gay!" Riotously funny, Bringing Up Baby was a huge flop when it first came out, though most modern critics agree it is one of Hawks' best comedies and the chemistry between Grant and Hepburn is electric. If you've never seen this hilarious (though decidedly improbable) film, do yourself a favor and watch for it on TCM.
Jason and the Argonauts - With all of today's modern CGI effects, it's rather easy to forget the amazing stop-motion effects perfected by the master, Ray Harryhausen. This 1963 fantasy is one of the best examples of his genius. A re-telling of the classic Greek myth, Jason (the yummy Todd Armstrong) sets sail with on a quest for the legendary Golden Fleece. Along the way he fights a set of torturous harpies; the bronze giant Talos; the seven-headed Hydra and, in one of stop-motion's greatest sequences, an army of skeletons grown from the Hydra's teeth. Helped by the goddess Hera (Honor Blackman, best known as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger), Jason eventually absconds with the fleece and the doomed princess Medea, returning triumphantly to take the throne of Athens. Loaded with sweaty, half-naked men (including a bearish Hercules, played by South African character actor Nigel Green), Jason and the Argonauts is often considered a "children's film." But plenty of grown-ups have a deep affection for this exciting and fun adventure film. And it certainly fueled many of my young, homoerotic fantasies.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad - Another Harryhausen gem, this 1958 adventure ("Filmed in 'Dynarama!'") features the decidedly non-Arabic Kerwin Matthews as the titular hero, who must journey to an island filled with monsters to rescue a princess who has been shrunken by an evil wizard. Featuring a fire-breathing dragon; a horned cyclops; a two-headed Roc and a dancing snake woman, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is silly, over-the-top fun, and features a manic performance by Torin Thatcher, a British/Indian character actor best known for playing insane, bad guys in "B" pictures (if he had been alive, Thatcher would probably have been cast as the evil Molar Rahm in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).
Imitation of Life (1938) - Fanny Hurst's tear-jerking novel is the perfect vehicle for this Claudette Colbert classic about two single mothers, one white and one black, who create a pancake mix empire. Colbert's daughter falls in love with her mother's boyfriend, while Louise Beaver's daughter, a light-skinned black girl, wants only to pass as white and eventually denies her mother in public. It's a soap-opera of the cheesiest order, but it never fails to make me cry at the end. A better known, but inferior remake in 1959, starred Lana Turner and Sandra Dee.
The Cell - The only modern film on this list, The Cell is often dismissed by critics, but I know several Horror and Fantasy fans who love this movie as much as I do. Jennifer Lopez (proving she can actually act) plays a psychiatrist who has developed a way to enter her patients' dreams, working to retrieve a young boy who is lost in a deep comatose state. Vincent D'Onofrio ("Law and Order: Criminal Intent") plays a serial killer who tortures his victims before eventually drowning them and turning them into bleached "dolls" to fuel his own tortured fantasies. When D'Onofrio falls into a coma, FBI agent Vince Vaughn enlists Lopez to enter the killer's dreams in order to discern the location of his latest, still living victim, before she succumbs to drowning as well. Director Tarsem Singh creates visually lavish dreamscapes that both fascinate and horrify, while Art Director Geoff Hubbard and Costume Designer Eiko Ishioka contribute to some of the most startling images ever captured on film. And Howard Shore's amazing score provides plenty of chills and suspense. A truly underrated gem well-worth seeing, if you can handle some of the more disturbing images.

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