Friday, July 6, 2012

Movies You've Never Gabbed

Werth: Hiya, Wise.  Whatcha reading?  

Wise: Oh, it's an article in the July 6 issue of Entertainment Weekly discussing "The 50 Best Movies You've Never Seen."  

Werth: Of course you have to read on to find out they mean movies you've never seen that were made in the last two decades.  EW could at least try to pretend the world existed before hipsters roamed the Earth.

Wise: One of my favorites from the EW list is Cold Comfort Farm (1995) starring a teenage Kate Beckinsale as Flora Poste, a society girl banished from her high-rolling city life who must make a new life for herself among her backwards relations.

Werth: Before it was remade into Party Girl

Wise: While there are some similarities to the Parker Posey classic, Cold Comfort Farm is actually based on the novel of the same name published by Stella Gibbons in 1932.  Both the novel and the film take advantage of the nostalgia surrounding 19th Century English pastoral novels, sending up the conventions and clichés so beloved by lit majors.

Werth: And sending the rest of us rushing for the Cliff's Notes.

Wise: While a background in the western cannon might tease out a few subtleties, just about anyone who survived high school English (or the 90's Jane Austen renaissance) will immediately appreciate the film's droll take on lusty farm hands, unsuitable society marriages, plodding suitors, verse-addicted girls given over to sylvan fantasies, dour preachers, and crazy old ladies in the attic.

Werth: Droll, plodding, sylvan and dour. It sounds like Jane Austen wrote that last sentence.

Wise: Even though some of the jokes are broad, the performances are incredibly precise.  The cast list includes some of Britain's most renowned actors, and each uses the skills honed on Shakespeare and those plummy BBC adaptations to make their roles totally authentic and totally hilarious.
Rufus Sewell does a lot of shirtless brooding; Ian McKellen's brimstone preacher has his sights set on celestial glory; Joanna Lumley dispenses madcap advice; Stephen Fry fumbles romance.
But it is Eileen Atkins who has the juiciest part as the doom-y matriarch of the family who must contend with the haunted lady upstairs, her lusty sons, and Flora's pert machinations to modernize the farm.

Werth: You had me at Joanna Lumley. There are definitely some interesting films on EW's list, but for sheer "nobody's seen it" magic, I am going to go back to a time when films weren't even in color.

Wise: When they saved all the color for the dialogue. 

Werth: 1950's Caged has re-appeared of late as a "cult classic," which is exactly why I went to see it at Film Forum a couple years ago. I figured a women's prison movie with Agnes Moorehead as the warden had to be worth some laughs.

Wise: Endora running a prison. What's not to like?

Werth: While there are definitely some good campy moments, what floored me was how astonishingly touching and dark this film is. Young Marie Allen (Sound of Music's own Baroness, Eleanor Parker) winds up in the clink for helping her no-good husband commit armed robbery. But this naive dope is all tears and remorse so a quick "reform-girl with a heart of gold" ending appears imminent. But Caged couldn't have made my jaw drop further.

Wise: Your jaw dropping in a prison movie. Too easy.

Werth: Marie is thrown in with a bunch of hardened felons and an even harder ward matron (the delightfully giant Hope Emerson). No peep-show shower scenes here, as the cast is positively ugly with their faces only slightly more grizzled than their souls. Marie is soon being subjected to the horrors of prison and more lesbian overtures than any movie I've seen of the era.

Wise: Except, of course, for Rebecca.

Werth: Any hope that the over-worked, but idealistic, warden (Moorehead) has that she can make a difference in Marie's or any other inmate's life soon withers and dies as prison life takes a hold of these women. Director John Cromwell does an amazing job of simulating "reality." 
The cast (with the exception of the ethereal Parker) looks like a casting-call for washed-up people, and Cromwell shoots the picture with the stark contrast of a noir, not always worried about showing everything. The performances are deftly large and subtle with both Parker and Emerson receiving Oscar nods for their work. Caged is one of those hidden gems that shocked and surprised me, and I can't recommend more insistently that Gabbers everywhere see it.

Wise: More insistently than EW recommends Hachi: A Dog's Tale (2010)?

Werth: Tune in next week for more flick recs from your friends here at Film Gab!

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