HIDDEN GEMS: 28. CHINATOWN

Hidden Gems brings to light little known film gems which have somehow slipped through the collective cinematic consciousness. You’re welcome. This week Chinatown.

Jack Nicholson plays a private detective in Los Angeles in the thirties. He is investigating the death of a man connected to city corruption and a water shortage. Faye Dunaway stars as the femme fatale with a mysterious secret. And John Huston plays a landowner and politician who seems to have his fingers in all the pies.

It has all the ingredients of a great success, but alas resides now in a pile of dust topped with mouse droppings and orange peel. Why?

Well, Polish director Roman Polanski was arrested and charged with rape after the film’s release and everyone decided not to ever mention the film again. So that didn’t help matters. On its original release, the film had met with some confusion as Chinatown itself doesn’t really feature in the film – except for a brief final mention. 

Roger Ebert wrote: 

“Where’s the f*cking Chinatown? I hear a film is called Chinatown, I buy a ticket on the basis of that information and I spend all my time in orange groves and in the Los Angeles river and no f*cking Chinatown.”

Jack Nicholson however was pleased with his work. So much so that he directed a sequel called The Two Jakes. It was hugely famous and popular but very few people realize it was actually a sequel to the now neglected Chinatown. 

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HIDDEN GEMS: 27. LORD OF THE RINGS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING

Hidden Gems brings to light little known film gems which have somehow slipped through the collective cinematic consciousness. You’re welcome. This week Lord of the Rings.

JRR Tolkien’s mammoth fantasy novel Lord of the Rings has for a long time been considered unfilmable. Ralph Bakshi tried in 1978 but that was a cartoon and so doesn’t really count as a movie. John Boorman wanted to adapt the film but made Excalibur instead. Finally, at the end of the century Peter Jackson, a New Zealand filmmaker famous for gore fests like Bad Taste, decided the time had come. He gathered Ian McKellan, Elijah Wood, Sean Bean, Liv Tyler, Salah from Raiders, the guy who married the hot gal from Lost and Viggo Mortensen and together embarked on an epic adventure.

They would brave orcs, trolls and big spiders as they sought to return the ring of power to Mordor where they would destroy it.

‘One does not simply walk into Mordor’ a meme once said, and so it proved. Many problems beset the making of the film, but are now shrouded in mystery because mysteriously no interviews or behind the scene footage survives. Famously Andy Serkis’ Gollum character didn’t work at all and his performance was so poor, CGI was used for the first time to replace him. Similarly, Orlando Bloom’s Elf Legolas required digital enhancement to add vitality.

Only one ring to rule them all?

It is a miracle what came out is so good. Jackson grounds the fantasy in a realistic setting and uses his kinetic storytelling to push Tolkien’s tale on. He also manages to imbue it with some emotional content. Also, he does well to get rid of the songs. Though it is regrettable that Jeff Bridges as Tom Bombadil hit the cutting room floor, this moves the quest on at a clip. The special effects are amazing and the music by Howard Shore recalls a classical Hollywood orchestral score.

Unfortunately, Harvey Weinstein pulled the plug on the projected sequels. And so like the Bakshi cartoon the ending of the Fellowship of the Ring is an anti-climax. The road goes ever on apparently. There are reports that Jackson would like to complete the trilogy, but more recently he has renounced the whole idea of returning to Middle Earth, saying ‘Why would you need more than one film?’

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HIDDEN GEMS: 26. THE SEARCHERS

Hidden Gems brings to light little known film gems which have somehow slipped through the collective cinematic consciousness. You’re welcome.

An obscure Western, The Searchers brings together cult director John Ford with little known B-actor John Wayne. Wayne actually started his career as a full time squinter, but started appearing in films when it was discovered he could drawl as well. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, who following a murderous attack on his brother’s ranch sets off to ‘seek’ his kidnapped niece, accompanied by young part Indian Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter).

Beginning as a revenger’s tale, The Searchers soon swells into something more epic – a road movie of sorts that traces a map of the American West, of racism, guilt and violence, driven by Ethan’s relentless obsession. The landscapes of Monument Valley are suitably ludicrous and low comedy mixes with the sublime. There’s a richness to life here that Ethan’s narrow frontier outlook can’t hope to comprehend. He is a man who is vanishing into his own hatreds. Useful to break a land – but a liability to civilization.

It is unclear why the film didn’t become a part of the Western canon. Perhaps it was due to the fact that Jeffrey Hunter became hugely famous as the captain of the Starship Enterprise, making his presence a distraction. Or maybe it was that by 1956 the Western had outstayed its welcome. Hundreds of westerns plagued the screens every week and almost every single one of them, directed by John Ford. As Ethan might have said, ‘Put an amen to it!’

Whatever the reason, The Searchers is actually a great film, a masterpiece even. So if you can dig up an copy somewhere, I highly recommend it.

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HIDDEN GEMS: 25. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

Hidden Gems brings to light little known film gems which have somehow slipped through the collective cinematic consciousness. This week David Lean’s rarely seen Lawrence of Arabia. You’re welcome.

When David Lean’s adaptation of T.E.Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom came out, no one went to see it. Everyone said: ‘why isn’t it called the Seven Pillars of Wisdom? That’s a doozy of a title!’ It isn’t like David Lean doesn’t know how to adapt books. He made Great Expectations.  Or Dickens of London to give the originally title. Set in Tatooine, Lawrence of Arabia stars Michael Fassbender’s android from Prometheus and Alien Covenant as Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence. It shows how the young British officer managed to win the trust of the Bedouin tribes – led by the finest Arabic actors Anthony Quin and Alec Guinness, along with Egyptian Omar Sharif – to engage in a tribal war against the occupying Turks.

As the war progresses, Lawrence’s single-handed determination and ascetic self-sacrifice leads to a kind of megalomania and fanaticism. It is a cunning psychological study of a man who wishes to deny his own humanity and escape himself. Within lies also the glamour and the brutality of war. At once a stirring adventure film and a keenly observed study of how a powerful personality can manipulate history to his own ends for a limited period. The politics of the situation are also sadly relevant as superpowers use the middle east as nothing more than a conveniently distant battleground and then divide the spoils with scant attention to the locals.

The imagery is beautiful – never before or since have landscapes been imbued with such meaning, beauty and terror. And the score by Maurice Jarre is so good it’s become a cliché. But the film roots itself in the Peter O’Toole’s performance. Lawrence’s sexuality, vulnerability and almost otherworldly way of seeing things come over amazingly. Which could be why it was never heard of again. Until now.

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HIDDEN GEMS: 24. THE THIRD MAN

Hidden Gems brings to light little known film gems which have somehow slipped through the collective cinematic consciousness. This week the Viennese thriller ‘The Third Man’. You’re welcome.

The end of the Second World War and Europe is in a state this is the setting for Carol Reed’s 1949 noir The Third Man, one of the finest films directed by a woman. Joseph Cotton stars as Holly Martins, an American crime novelist out of his depth in war time Vienna. He arrives hoping for a job from his old pal Harry Lime only to find that someone has murdered Lime and the authorities suspect Lime of criminal racketeering. He has also left behind a girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli) who Martins begins to fall for.

Suspecting that not all is as it seems, Martins decides to investigate. But the murky reality is not what he banked on.

Scripted by Graham Greene and with a scene stealing supporting role by Orson Welles, The Third Man deserves to be much better known than it is. However, sexism meant that Carol Reed’s film found only a small audience and was critically mauled. She even tried pretending to be a Hungarian man, a subterfuge referenced by the lead characters sexually ambiguous first name, but to no avail. Some have claimed that the interminable zither music also played a part in the film’s lack of popularity.

However, The Third Man is truly a gem. The brilliant impressionistic photography and the shadow play links thematically with a world of mixed loyalties and betrayal. This is a Europe that is at once gorgeous but doomed and uncertain. The victory of the Second World War marks the end of moral certainty. The characters find themselves lost in a maze they don’t even recognise.

So if you’ve never heard of it – and few have – do yourself a cinematic favor and get a copy. With whip smart writing,superb acting and a supporting cast – Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee and Wilfrid Hyde-White – of truly memorable magnificence, The Third Man deserves belated recognition. Also you don’t need to see the prequels The First Man or The Second Man, which are inferior.

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HIDDEN GEMS: 23. ALIEN

Hidden Gems brings to light little known film gems which have somehow slipped through the collective cinematic consciousness. This week science fiction horror ‘Alien’. You’re welcome.

Science Fiction and Horror? Together? Crazy I know, but that’s the premise behind Ridley Scott’s little known science fiction horror film Alien. The story was simplicity itself. The crew of an intergalactic truck awake from hyper-sleep to investigate a distress signal on a remote planet. Here they encounter a new life-form which attaches itself to a crew member. On board the ship, the crew member (John Hurt) seems to recover, only to get the worst indigestion of his entire life. And before you know it an alien creature with acid for blood is running around the ship killing crew members one at a time.

It’s easy to see why it wasn’t a great success. Gory and dark and all the backstory was to do with company bonuses instead of the characters endlessly talking about what they want out of life. The Alien itself looked like a penis mouthed bone cage with a cycling helmet on.  And that tag line ‘In Space, no one can hear you scream’!? We can hear spaceships explode and what not. Why not a scream?

Still, Ridley Scott’s second film deserves a re-watch – if you can dig up a copy. The performances are amazing – Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Koto and Harry Dean Stanton all deserved to be name-checked. Scott in collaboration with Swiss nutcase H.R. Giger gives the film a nightmarish strobed look. The blue collar industrial spaces of the space ship take on a dripping lost in the woods and down the rabbit hole feel.

Scott went on to a highly successful career. And yet I can’t help but wonder if he ever feels like returning to this early work, what marvellous possibilities there might be.

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HIDDEN GEMS: 22. PSYCHO

Hidden Gems brings to light little known film gems which have somehow slipped through the collective cinematic consciousness. This week psychological thriller ‘Psycho’. You’re welcome.

Despite being English and fat, Alfred Hitchcock was actually a highly regarded director in his time. Alfred what cock? you say. Yeah, I know. He has a kind of porn-y name, but believe me, hundred of years ago people liked his movies. Now, alas, no one except me knows who he is. So why don’t you dust off this totally unknown thriller and see what lies beneath?psycho

Psycho starts with a robbery. Janet Leigh is Marion Crane, an employee who absconds with a wadge of cash from work and runs away to be with her lover. Along the way she stops at an old empty motel in the pouring rain. Here she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a lonely young man under the thumb of his mother. What happens next is scarier than a lift from Ted Bundy. And it all happens in the shower. The shower? What could be scary about a shower? you say. That’s where I go to get clean. Well, you won’t think about it the same way once you’ve seen the film.

Although no longer talked about the film was actually a hit when it came out. There were a number of sequels and Gus Van Sant even made a shot-for-shot remake called Milk.

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HIDDEN GEMS 21. BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN

Hidden Gems brings to light little known film gems which have somehow slipped through the collective cinematic consciousness. This week SILENT movie ‘Battleship Potemkin’. You’re welcome.

I know what you’re going to say, ‘Urgh! I hated Battleship’. Fair enough. It was awful, even for Peter Berg, but did you know it was a remake of a Russian movie? No. Well, welcome to the best kept secret of the former Soviet Union.

Battleship Potemkin tells the story of Battleship and a revolt that takes place after they find that the bread is full of maggots. The officers are all absolute douche bags and when they order the soldiers to shoot the men, a general riot breaks out on-board the ship. The people in the port of Odessa support the mutiny but then Tsarist soldiers, like assholes, massacre them on the Odessa Steps. This is the heart of the movie, and a moment when a baby in a pram runs out of control down the steps is unbelievably good. One criticism might be that this part seems to be directly lifted from Brian DePalma’s Untouchables. It’s a niggle. I know.

Director Sergei Eisenstein was not only a great director but also discovered the General Theory of Relativity. Potemkin clocks in at just an hour fifteen minutes, a whole hour under Peter Berg’s Battleship. Which could be why Eisenstein is still respected for his editing and Berg isn’t.

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HIDDEN GEMS: 20. THE SHINING

Hidden Gems brings to light little known film gems which have somehow slipped through the collective cinematic consciousness. This week ‘horror’ film: The Shining. You’re welcome.

Man with family stays in snowbound hotel for the winter and can’t write a book. I know. Doesn’t sound like a great film, does it? Would it help if I told you that the film has some of the most revolutionary trike shots in the history of film? No, probably not. Shelley Duvall is in it. Still not interested? Jesus.

Based on a book by an American writer called Stephen King, The Shining was so poorly received even Stephen King, the writer, came out publicly to denounce the film as ‘an unflushed toilet’ in his essay ‘Supernatural Fiction (and Shit I Think)’. Director Stanley Kubrick had given up directing. He’d moved to England and was hosting a popular chat show for the BBC called ‘Parkinson’ when he read the novel. He immediately saw the potential for a hilarious comedy. He told Jack Nicholson: ‘It’s about a bad writer, who becomes a bad ax murderer.’ Jack Torrance, the murderous novelist, is terrible at killing people, repeatedly bested by his child and wife. The only victim he manages to kill is a man who can see into the future who is worse at seeing into the future than Jack is at killing people with an ax.

The film is neither scary nor funny, but a weird amalgam of the two.  It was released to huge indifference and Kubrick went back to being a TV chat show host and never made another film again.

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HIDDEN GEMS: 19. THE GRADUATE

Hidden Gems brings to light little known film gems which have somehow slipped through the collective cinematic consciousness. This week The Graduate. You’re welcome.

The oldest student in the world falls for the youngest MILF. Then falls for her daughter. Nope, this is not a porno, but an amazing comedy from the 1960s starring Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross. Hoffman plays Benjamin, a student who has his whole life ahead of him and yet no apparent wish to set off. The grotesqueries of middle class America – ‘Plastics!’ – and his own family don’t help. Until he meets and begins an affair with Mrs Robinson. Mike Nichols’ coming of age sex comedy is full of awkwardness and embarrassment as Benjamin finds himself in the midst of an affair and at the same time falling for his lover’s daughter, Elaine Robinson. This is a world on the cusp of change. Age against youth, the 60s sideswiping the 50s. Perhaps, it was too daring for the time. Simon and Garfunkel provide a stunning soundtrack of folk pop. The duo were never heard of again. After a career of disappointments, Hoffman would finally catch a break and receive long-overdue fame for Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.

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HIDDEN GEMS: 18. BAMBI

Hidden Gems brings to light little known film gems which have somehow slipped through the collective cinematic consciousness. This week Bambi. You’re welcome.

Of course we all know that cartoons can’t be films. Not really. Those assholes at Pixar have tried to convince us otherwise. But we all know. That thing with Tom Hanks’ voice isn’t really. Ity’s just a picture. And so it goes. Before Pixar there was a studio called Disney started by Walt Disney, a guy famous for being not too keen on the Jews. But when he wasn’t not liking the Jews he was also busy drawing pictures of shit. One day he’d been trying to draw a mouse but kept fucking up the hand, not getting the right number of fingers. He knocked the whole pile off the desk and as they fell to the floor he noticed that the different pictures fluttering in sequence looked like motion. ‘Money!’ he shouted.

Bambi was one of his first movies and nobody has ever seen, but it is really worth hunting down. Oh, shit that’s actually not appropriate given…

So, Bambi tells the story of a deer, like the animal, growing up in the forest. His friendships with the other animals, evading the dangers of fire and hunters, dealing with parental death and it’s for kids. I know a cartoon about animals. No wonder it flopped. The film is beautiful to look at and really moving. Years later Michael Cimino was to remake it but from the perspective of the hunters. His film was a disaster because he tacked on a load of stuff about the Vietnam War. Disney disowned it in the end.

So Bambi. Give it a chance. Not bad.

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HIDDEN GEMS: 17. THE DARK KNIGHT

Hidden Gems brings to light little known film gems which have somehow slipped through the collective cinematic consciousness. This week The Dark Knight. You’re welcome.

I’ll never forget the day Chris Nolan came into my office and said to me ‘Exec!’ he was informal like that ‘Exec! I’ve got an idea for a movie: the Dark Knight’. Of course, I thought it was going to be a historical epic. King Arthur perhaps. Or Ivanhoe. Still the kid was hot and floppy blond hair and an adorable British accent so I said okay and validated his parking. It wasn’t until a year later that I saw the finished product. The Dark Knight made no sense. ‘Where’s Batman’s origin story?’ I asked. ‘There’s a gaping hole where his parent’s funeral should be.’ ‘But we covered that in Batman Begins,’ Chris countered but I cut him off. ‘I want facts, not excuses.’ The film was dark and exciting. The action sequences were terrific and the pace kept on going. Even without the funeral, there was a chance we might make it.

However, audiences rejected it wholesale and it sank without a trace. With all the postmortems, it became clear that there was one major component that simply hadn’t worked. The villain of the piece was called the Joker, played by a young Australian actor Heath Ledger, but he was hopeless. I don’t want to sat it was his fault – the script gave him nothing – but the fact was he was not funny. A joker who doesn’t tell jokes? I mean screenwriting 101 guys. Maybe it also lagged a bit at the end and the part when Batman lies to protect Harvey Dent’s reputation made zero sense.

The film tanked and unfortunately so did Ledger’s career. At least, I haven’t seen him in anything recently. Nolan went back to England with his tail between his legs and is now directing the odd episode of Coronation Street – a soap opera set in Manchester, UK. If you can find a copy of the Dark Knight it still holds an odd ball charm and will make you wonder what the same material would have been like in the hands of someone a little more competent. A Zack Snyder perhaps.

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HIDDEN GEMS: 16. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

Hidden Gems brings to light little known film gems which have somehow slipped through the collective cinematic consciousness. This week Singin’ in the Rain. You’re welcome.

Singin’ in the Rain should have been a huge hit. It starred Gene Kelly, who directed it alongside Stanley Donen, as well as Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor and Jean Hagen. Set in the golden era of the big silent movies, Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a matinee idol who along with Lina Lamont dominate the silver screen. However, trouble is brewing as a little movie called The Jazz Singer introduces sound to a stunned Hollywood and the studios begin to rush talkies into production. The problem is that Lockwood and Lamont are terrible at speaking and their acting style leaves a lot to be desired. The solution comes via one of the many song and dance routines – they’ll turn The Dueling Cavalier into The Singing Cavalier and make a musical. However, Lamont can’t sing and has such a shrill voice, it can break teeth. Another song and dance later and the idea of having Kathy (Reynolds), Don’s new love interest, dub Lamont.

The movie will be a hit and Lockwood and Lamont’s careers will be saved, but will it also cost Kathy her chance of an independent career. The film is a brilliant breezy piece of Hollywood satire. Perhaps the best film to be made by Hollywood about Hollywood (along with Sunset Boulevard). Not as acerbic as the latter nor the later The Player, but under the gloss there is a keen satirical eye and the bursts of exuberant fun are intoxicating. Looking back on the film many wonder why it didn’t get a larger audience, but Gene Kelly probably came closest when he stated how much he regretted the title. ‘That apostrophe cost us,’ he told French cultural magazine Chapeau. ‘In those days people wanted the movies to be held to higher standards. I remember an audience in Milwaukee walking out and chanting as they went “Where’s the G?” At that point I knew we’d lost them.’

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HIDDEN GEMS: 15. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE

Hidden Gems brings to light little known film gems which have somehow slipped through the collective cinematic consciousness. This week It’s a Wonderful Life. You’re welcome.

Possibly the least known Christmas film ever made, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life stars minor character actor James Stewart in a dark tale of financial fraud, sexual repression, oedipal drama, psychosis and schizophrenia. From the viewpoint of a chuckling angel (Henry Travers) we see unfold the life of George Bailey (Stewart), a small town guy who dreams of nothing but escape from the stultifying boredom of Bedford Falls. From boyhood, he dreams of getting out, but he is subjected to physical abuse by the local chemist and psychological warfare from his seemingly gentle but violently racist father. When he is almost killed by local pranksters, he foolishly falls for the manipulative wiles of wannabe librarian Mary (Donna Reed) and her demands for the Moon. To spite his son, the sadistic racist father dies on purpose, leaving George trapped in the town as the only one capable of looking after the family’s piffling Building and Loan company. Kind old geezer Mr. Potter tries to free George via the beauties of capitalism but George prefers to build houses for immigrants to assuage his white guilt. When a number of things go wrong one Christmas Eve, George decides to kill himself and that’s when Clarence the angel arrives to show George what a stupid asshole he’s been. How life would be so much better without him, and how Bedford Falls would have been the sexier and more exciting Potter’s Ville. The whole point being if he hadn’t existed, the World would have come to Bedford Falls. It was George all along who was keeping Bedford Falls in its somnambulant state of paralysis and repression. Even Mary would have got her lifelong wish to be a librarian. Idiot that he is though, George Bailey chooses not to kill himself and the hell that is his life continues.

Happy Christmas everyone!

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