Diamonds in the haystack
May 7, 2013 9:30 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for the unexpected, overlooked masterpieces hiding within conventionally marginal artistic genres: novelty Christmas music albums, mass market cowboy novels, direct-to-video action movie sequels, etc.

This question was prompted by a glowing review of Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. If Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's to be believed, this direct-to-download fifth sequel to a 1992 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle "grafts an art-horror movie on to the rootstock of a violent action flick...The two films it brings to mind are Lost Highway and Videodrome."

I love it when this happens - when a creator or creators, working on the shortest rations of time, money, attention, and respect, manage to bring forth insightful and even transcendent art in the last place you would expect to see it. As so much of art is context, so much more vibrant is its flower when it blooms in the middle of cash-in mediocrity.

But how many of those little miracles have I passed over because they sprang up in the most unlikely places? There exist resources for finding underrated mainstream and art house movies, or underrated pop and indie albums. But I don't know of any compendiums of the most disquieting direct-to-video actioners, or of the Halloween haunted house sound-effect albums that look to say something new about the human condition.

I'm not necessarily looking for deconstructions or denials of genre, or for works that are fantastic through-and-through. But if you've encountered anything like a mid-series Babysitter's Club book that slipped in a quietly devastating portrait of a suburban marriage, or a Young Indiana Jones tie-in novel which examines Georgian nationalism in pre-indepence Tiflis, or a made-for-TV holiday movie which charts the depths of a father's regret, I'd very much like to hear about it.
posted by Iridic to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
This is not a direct answer to your request, but it occurs to me that you'd enjoy this delightful documentary, Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story, available in full (for free!) on PBS's YouTube channel.

Context: song-poems.
posted by duffell at 9:40 AM on May 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, man, you are looking for John M. Ford (Mike Ford)'s Star Trek novelisations, The Final Reflection and How Much for Just the Planet?

There is also a lot of great stuff hiding in genre romance. Radish Reviews might be one place to look for reviews of mainstream genre romance that is unappreciated because of its cover.

Georgette Heyer isn't exactly an example, as she was essentially hemmed into the genre she created, but if you're willing to accept a novel that wasn't originally written as genre romance, A Civil Contract is terrific.
posted by pie ninja at 9:48 AM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Die Hard has more to it than meets the eye.
posted by jsturgill at 10:05 AM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Children's picture book Zen Shorts is among the most beautiful and philosophical books I've ever seen. There is a lot of amazing art in kids' books, so it's not exactly a marginally artistic genre, but Muth's watercolors and inks go above and beyond, in my opinion.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:06 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

You'll never hear 'O Come All Ye Faithful' the same way again.
posted by Kakkerlak at 10:16 AM on May 7, 2013

Best answer: Recent kid's music is teeming with this stuff - Randy Kaplan and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo are doing some amazing work here.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:23 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Torchwood is a shlocky X-Files knock-off, but somehow in the middle of its run, they managed to make a masterpiece: the self-contained third season, "Children of Earth," which is some of the finest sci-fi as social commentary ever filmed.

In the U.S., T'Pau is laughed off as a one-hit wonder, but the album that hit came from is IMO one of the best pop albums of its decade.
posted by jbickers at 11:09 AM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Christmas album? My favorite has become Christmas Caravan by the Squirrel Nut Zippers. It looks at the season from all the angles that are usually ignored.
posted by Doohickie at 11:29 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Two of the four novelizations of the British scifi comedy series Red Dwarf--the first two--were astonishingly good.

The latter two were really, really bad.
posted by duffell at 12:28 PM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One of my favorite science fiction novels is an old Animorphs spin-off: The Ellimist Chronicles. Ender's Game-esque machinations, fantastic crystalline sky civilizations, global genocide, centuries-long imprisonments, ascent to demigodhood -- the narrative scope and imagination is staggering for what's intended to be a kid's series.

Also, Ricky Gervais's The Invention of Lying (where he's the first human being to figure out it's possible to make stuff up) was a middling film and didn't end up being a huge success, but it had a surprising moment of profound pathos nestled halfway through it.

The AV Club's regular pop culture Q&A feature also has some relevant columns:

Improved by low expectations
Favorite young-adult novels
Art that was nowhere near what you expected
Best scenes in worst movies
Novelty songs we enjoy as music
Children’s pop-culture that adults can love
Childhood entertainment we still love
posted by Rhaomi at 4:31 PM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

On the surface, Three Kings and Enemy of the State look like your typical big-budget, mainstream, formulaic Hollywood action films. (And they are great examples of the genre if you're looking for that kind of thing.)

Three Kings is actually a scathing indictment of the U.S. role in Iraq after the Gulf War that is well-written and well-acted, with a very moving message.

Enemy of the State came out in 1998 and was a fun Tony Scott/Jerry Bruckheimer film about a labor lawyer caught up in a political conspiracy that eerily mirrors the post-9/11 NSA wiretapping program that we are still talking about today, and until we actually start executing people on live TV I consider it even more prescient than Network. (The difference being Network was art reflecting life and Enemy of the State would seem to be life imitating art.)

They were both commercial successes, but I think they get overlooked as fluff.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:17 PM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Cheesy action movie: IMO, The Rundown is woefully, woefully underrated. (For once, a trailer doesn't show all the good bits in a film.) Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) is great, Seann William Scott is funny, Christopher Walken chews all the scenery within reach and is AMAZINGLY AWESOME as he does it, and there are some terrific fight scenes (here, Johnson gets thoroughly smacked around by Ernie Reyes, Jr.).

Cheesy kids' movies: Warriors of Virtue is so great. Kung fu-fighting kangaroos! Kitchen-fu! And the (again, delightfully scenery-chewing) villain gets a line that's a tribute to "Warriors, come out to plaaa-aaayyyy!!!!"

Misunderstood-and-therefore-underrated martial arts flick: Jet Li's Invincible. As I've commented before on MeFi, there are two things to be aware of, the understanding of which significantly changes the experience of the movie:
  1. As should be apparent within the first 60 seconds, this is a Hong Kong action movie; it just happens to be made in English. Don't be deceived — the tropes it's going for are not Hollywood tropes.
  2. The movie is an extended Buddhist allegory, based on Jet Li's Tibetan Buddhist beliefs.

posted by Lexica at 9:17 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Booker Prize of Bantam Books thread a couple of weeks ago didn't turn up as many of these as you'd probably like, but there are a few things mentioned there that are on point. For this thread, I'll add that the folks at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books review a lot of mainstream novels, but they also occasionally give A grades to Harlequins, etc.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:53 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've always been mystified by the lukewarm reception that Tin Machine got back in the day.
posted by usonian at 11:54 AM on May 8, 2013

Best answer: Thanks for another shout-out, Iridic! Sorry I haven't done any new Underrated Movies for a while, but if I go back to it, I'll be sure to recommend the recent straight-to-DVD sci-fi movie Lockout, among others.

I highly recommend is Greg Hatcher's weekly column at Comics Should Be Good where he reviews a lifetime of ephemera from the edges of pop culture, including excellent novelizations, such as in his most recent column. There's years of archives there that are worth checking out, because he's a great writer.

Trying to think of specific examples of the kind of things you're looking for, this comes to mind:

I've never forgotten one episode of the otherwise forgettable Howard Hessman sitcom "Head of the Class", about a high-school challenge class. One of the students was the "bad boy" who always felt he didn't belong in the elite class. In this episode, it's the day before Parents Day, but his deadbeat dad shows up, only to discover he's there on the wrong day, but he asks if he can stay anyway, since he already took the day off work. The kid is mortified, but the teacher agrees. Unexpectedly, the dad is gregarious and fun and starts chiming in with his own history knowledge which impresses everybody, so that the kid doesn't feel quite so bad...but then, gradually, the dad starts chiming in too often and become grating, to the point where the teacher has to ask him to cut it out. The kid is now even more mortified, having seen the arc of his parents' marriage (and presumably every relationship the dad has ever had) recreated before him. He finally confronts his dad and demands that he leave and come back the next day, at which point the dad breaks down and admits that he knew it was the wrong day, but he couldn't stand to face the kid's mother or the other, more successful parents. He apologizes and slips away, possibly forever.

Wow. Really powerful. Felt more like a "New Yorker" short story than a zany mid-'80s sitcom episode.
posted by Matt Bird at 9:15 PM on May 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The Awl just gave the vanity album Milla Jovovich made when she was sixteen a rave review.
posted by Georgina at 6:37 AM on May 11, 2013

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