Wednesday, October 12, 2005


My wife and I have a close friend, Bill Hamilton, who lives in Daly City, California, just outside of San Francisco. Bill is a passionate cat lover, an editor, an opera singer and aficionado, a proud skeptic, a prouder Libertarian, and a lover of film. Given the high level of connoisseurship involved in his interests, I’m always amused and delighted that his taste in movies is so eclectic. Some would say “unsophisticated,” but I wouldn’t—Bill’s a man who is an appreciator of arts for which many of us are either too impatient or too, yes, unsophisticated, but he’s remarkably unpretentious, especially when it comes to movies. His taste runs from the mainstream-- Lawrence of Arabia and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are particular favorites—to artier fare, but he also has an unquenchable taste for pulpy, grind-house horror and science fiction. It was his recommendations that led me to Brian Yuzna’s Society and Mark Herrier’s Popcorn, among many other tasty treats. And while I would never say that everything Bill has recommended has panned out for me (he was very enthusiastic about Queen of the Damned), I tend to go the extra mile when he offers a recommendation of something I’ve never heard of, largely because he’s one of the few discriminating viewers I know of who still looks closely at straight-to-video titles, the dregs of the video universe, and decides to see them if he’s intrigued, rather than dismissing them out of hand simply because they were assigned B-level status or otherwise dumped by a studio without much more than a whisper of publicity.

Many terrific cinema classics and underappreciated gems have come from these ranks. Right now director Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion, Never Cry Wolf) has a new movie, probably already in its last hours in movie theaters, that you’ve never heard of called Duma, about a boy’s struggle to return a pet cheetah into the wilds of Africa. Warner Bros. decided that no one would go to see the movie, and only after the likes of Roger Ebert, Stephanie Zacharek and others came out stumping for it, encouraging audiences to see it in limited engagements, did Warners mount a measly ad campaign and dumped it in a few theaters nationwide with little or no fanfare. They want the movie to die so they can say they were right, and Duma will eventually end up fighting for attention amongst all the more heavily hyped hits on the new releases shelf of your local Blockbuster, getting rented only when all the copies of Kicking and Screaming and The Interpreter are cleared off the shelves. Bill wouldn’t set foot in a Blockbuster—he’s a Netflix man—but I don’t doubt Duma will end up in his queue, along with a host of other films that few of us have ever heard of or seriously considered renting.

He e-mailed me tonight to let me know about one such movie, and a quick glance at its credits convinced me to go out on a limb and pass the recommendation along. Here’s what Bill wrote:

"I rented a wonderful movie over the weekend, a fantasy with several great actors, a couple of lousy actors and a great script that more than redeems it: Interstate 60. One of my favorite actors, Chris Cooper, is especially memorable. It went direct to video, which is a shame. It should be required viewing in high schools.”

I found that last comment pretty intriguing, but a glance at the name of the writer-director was even more revealing. It turns out that Interstate 60 is written and directed by Bob Gale, who, with Robert Zemeckis directing, produced and co-wrote the Back to the Future trilogy and, much more importantly for me, a trifecta of brilliant comedies from 1977-1980-- Zemeckis’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Steven Spielberg’s 1941 and the hilarious profane and astringently amoral farce Used Cars, also directed by Zemeckis. Interstate 60 features a cast of cameos that will look pretty familiar if you love those movies—Christopher Lloyd and Kurt Russell both makes appearances—and the rest of the cast, including Art Evans, Ann-Margret, Amy Smart, James Marsden and Bill’s favorite, Chris Cooper, is a pretty good one. This 2002 release certainly sounds like one that got away—John Ulmer, on Rotten Tomatoes, says “It’s a shame that the majority of moviegoers and families seeking quality films will never even see this film, much less hear about it.” Comments like that, my interest in seeing what a acerbic writer like Bob Gale will have done with his directorial debut, and my appreciation for the odd and charmingly eclectic movie tastes of my friend Bill Hamilton, have made me reserve a place on my own Netflix queue for Interstate 60. Thanks for the heads-up, Bill!


Anonymous said...

I have often wondered if there might be some quality directors lurking in straight-to-video purgatory, but I'm usually disappointed. It really ought to be the modern-day equivalent of the Poverty Row sudios of the '40s, where risk-taking low-budget directors made classic B- and Z-grade movies-- some good, some bad, some wonderful, some awful! It was here that greats like Edgar G. Ulmer lurked and a lot of excellent low-budget film noirs were made. ("Detour" (1945) anyone?!?)

But it seems this is not the case, although maybe I'll check out Bill's recommendations. Perhaps he's the guy to ask if any of those straight-to-video "From Dusk Till Dawn" sequels are any good!? And also that not-too-great-looking "My Name Is Modesty: A Modesty Blaise Adventure" (2003) movie that I am tempted to rent because of my fondness for the zany 1966 Joseph Losey original ("Modesty Blaise"). (All of the above are available on Netflix, by the way.)

I did watch John Woo's straight-to-video Dolph Lundgren-starring "Blackjack" (1998) in hopes that he would do more of the bullet ballet extravaganzas that he was known for in the low-budget Hong Kong world, but alas, he didn't deliver. The action was understated and reserved for no good reason.

(Maybe I'll just have to infiltrate that straight-to-video world myself and make the gritty insane movies they should be making!)

- The Mysterious (A)dr(ia)n B)e;tam(ax)

Anonymous said...

I'm glad someone else saw this film and enjoyed it. I heard about it in conjunction with the lead, James Marsden, who is one of those vastly underrated actors, usually dismissed because he happens to have a pretty face and some of his early films were true dreck. But he's actually good (especially in terms of his comic timing), and this film was a lot of fun. Sometimes quite obvious, but with a tongue-in-cheek flair that (imo) made it work.