Saturday, June 18, 2011

Overlooked Gems That Deserve to be Better Known

Kenny & Company (1976) Wanna know what it was like growing up in suburban Southern California during the 70s?  This is probably the best glimpse into domestic life in the decade of shame that you’re likely to get, short of building your own time machine.  Don Coscarelli wrote and directed this fun, bittersweet flick that depicts 11-year-old Kenny and his friends as they get into and out of various misadventures.  The kids are smart, but not overly precocious in a contrived Little Rascals sort of way.  Many of the situations ring true.  The kids talk like kids, and there are no attempts to sugarcoat the dialogue.  Although I didn’t have friends exactly like Kenny and his comrades, I knew many kids like them, and I often found myself in similar absurd, and sometimes compromising, dilemmas.
The story builds to a pseudo-climax as Halloween approaches, but Halloween is just a MacGuffin for the comedy and drama of the moment that Kenny & Company captures so well.  The film accurately reflects the ups and downs of life.  According to the DVD’s informative featurette, Coscarelli enlisted the aid of many of his family and friends to flesh out the cast and crew.  This undoubtedly contributed to the uneven acting displayed throughout, but this does little to detract from the film’s overall entertainment value.  Many of the actors would appear in his next movie, Phantasm, which explored much darker themes.  Kenny & Company is not simply a dress rehearsal for Coscarelli’s better-known follow up, but a true slice of life.  Sit back, relax, and groove out to the mellow tunes of Reggie Bannister (who also plays a small, but memorable role in the film).  Okay, maybe not that last part, but it’s still a fine flick.
Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes,” comments Jason Robards’ Charles Halloway, as the evil Mr. Dark approaches.  This underrated film has never seen a lot of love from the mainstream critics, but it has resonated in my mind over the years.  Something Wicked This Way Comes nicely captures the look and tone of Bradbury’s stories, which should come as no surprise, since he wrote the screenplay (adapted from his novel).  Bradbury’s story is evocative of a simpler time that never existed, but you somehow wish it did.  Two pre-teen boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade witness the strange metamorphosis that occurs in their town after Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium unexpectedly appears one autumn night. 
At times, the film threatens to wallow in ersatz nostalgia.  The all-too-obvious movie set town appears to be straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and the kids manage to never say anything more harsh than “darn.”  There’s still much to like about this film, however, with its pervasive sense of dread.  Robards is particularly good as Will’s aging father, and Jonathan Pryce exudes a subtle menace as the satanic Mr. Dark.  One by one, the town’s resident’s fall under the spell of Mr. Dark, who promises to make their most heartfelt desires come true, but for a terrible price.  James Horner’s great score does a lot to elevate the tension, effectively communicating the shift from light to dark.  The odd mixture of sentimentality with the macabre seems to be a strange brew, but it’s also oddly endearing.  Something Wicked This Way Comes is a product from another time, and a different studio system.  It’s an eccentric little curio worth revisiting.  
Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.

American Movie (1999) This documentary should be required viewing for any would-be independent filmmaker.  American Movie chronicles the attempts of Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt to produce the short horror film, Coven, despite the formidable obstacles that stand in his way.  He’s clearly knowledgeable about the craft of filmmaking, but the lack of funds, formal training, or support inhibits his chances for success.  He begs, borrows and cajoles his friends and family members in his zeal to complete Coven.  Movies are his passion – a lifelong obsession not shared by the majority of people around him.  His most ardent supporters are his girlfriend and best buddy Mike, but they seem to be in the minority.  Most of his family greets his ideas with skepticism or outright disdain. 
Taken at face value, many of the situations depicted in this documentary could easily evoke feelings of schadenfreude.  It’s easy to laugh at Borchardt’s frustration as he repeatedly endeavors to pry his uncle Bill from his wallet to help finance Coven.  It’s difficult to take Borchardt seriously when he talks about making it big, but at the age of 30 is still relegated to menial work delivering papers or cleaning up a local graveyard.  But documentarians Sarah Price and Chris Smith are not interested in being mean spirited -- getting to the core of Borchardt’s motivation is their goal.  American Movie is a romantic film in the sense that it’s about one man’s relentless pursuit of his ideals, regardless of the substantial personal and financial toll.  How you ultimately react to the film and Mark Borchardt’s predicament is sort of a barometer for how much you believe in the value of holding on to your childhood dreams.  In the end, it’s irrelevant whether or not the end product of Borchardt’s labors is any good, * but that he persevered, even when plain old common sense dictated that he should stop. 
Rating: **** ½.  Available on DVD.
* As an added bonus, the DVD includes Borchardt’s short film, Coven.  So, is it any good?  Well… For any of you parents out there that have been subjected to one of your child’s more incomprehensible artistic creations, the usual response is something like: ”Hmmmm… That’s um… very interesting.” 

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