I love certain performances and performers because they tap a particular kind of energy, a sort of raw exposed nervous system style of acting.  People who are good at allowing you to share some private pain, who work to generate empathy in favor of big histrionics.  Crispin Glover's best work, both in films and on talk shows, is all about that sort of private-world freakshow, and in "Back To The Future" or "Charlie's Angels," it was used to very commercial effect.  John Savage is an actor who was on his way up at the time he made this film, and if you want to talk about a guy who was poised to pop, a really good, interesting, quirky actor who was making some big choices, with featured or starring roles in "The Deer Hunter," "Hair," and "The Onion Field" right in a row. 

And then came "Inside Moves."  And this, honestly, should have been his moment.  He should have been a big awards contender.  But... well... the actual Oscar nominees that year?  John Hurt for "The Elephant Man".  I can totally see that.  Robert Duvall for... oh, well, sure, "The Great Santini."  Totally.  That's about as great as great gets.  And "The Stunt Man"?  Peter O'Toole?  That's one of his four or five truly iconic moments.  Hard to argue.  Who won that year?  Robert De Niro?  "Raging Bull"?

Dude... that was not your fault.

[more after the jump]

it just happened to be a really rough year.  So it didn't happen for Savage.  And I don't know that he's ever really had that kind of heat again.  It's a damn shame.  I think if more people had seen "Inside Moves" in 1980, more people would talk about it today as a favorite.

Lionsgate just released the title on DVD for the first time.  They did a nice job with it, recording a commentary by Richard Donner and Brian Helgeland.  I think Helgeland must be there to sort of chat with Donner and steer the conversation a bit.  The script for "Inside Moves" was actually adapted from a novel by Todd Walton, by the then-powerful screenwriting team of Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson, and it's a slick piece of '70s Hollywood screenwriting.  There are some really strong choices made in the adaptation of the material, and the most obvious of them is that John Savage's character, Roary, is crippled in the film by a suicide attempt, while in the book, it's in Vietnam.  And on the bonus materials on the disc, there's a nice featurette that interviews Donner and Walton about the process of the film's development, and they talk about that choice in particular.  You've got to listen to Donner to really understand the guy, and I've met him and spoken to him and attended talks by him over the years, and he's one of the straightest-spoken men in the business.  A diplomat, but a brutally blunt one.  I find him really impressive, the model of a professional in each new shifting paradigm of what this business is.

And this film represents the absolute best moment of his career, I think, the sort of perfect representation of his best sensibilities.  Donner's a shooter, a guy trained by television, always fast and efficient and thinking on his feet.  It gives his best movies or the best moments in his movies a sort of heated urgency, a way to appear loose while still being carefully built.  And "Inside Moves" feels very loose and shaggy and lived in, rough around the edges by design.  It has room for all the various performers to really stretch and play.  John Savage starts the movie with a spectacular attempt to kill himself, a leap off the tenth floor of a building.  He lives, and by the end of the opening credits, he's back on the street, as rehabbed as he's going to get, and he's sort of a mutant, with a braced leg and a stiff neck and a walk you see coming a half-block away.  And Savage takes this limitation, and he makes it sing.  He plays Roary like a guy who got cracked in such a way that you can see right inside him now.  Everything he thinks, everything he feels... it all plays out right there on the surface.  He can't hide the way he reacts anymore... like he's had all the protective instincts stripped out of him.  He moves like a shopping cart with one broken wheel, constantly seeming to be in mid-turn.  He has a handful of devastating moments in the movie, like joining a card game or confronting his friend to speak some hard truths, but the thing that's most impressive is how he makes each and every moment in the film into some statement about Roary and who he is.  He's constantly revealing something, constantly doing something, alive.  And when he plays hurt... when he really turns it up, opens it all the way, it's almost too much to take.  You just want someone to cover him, to hold him, to calm him.  You're afraid he'll shake to pieces.

David Morse, one of the great utilitarian character actors working, has a long history of really memorable work.  Unforgettable as "Boomer" on "St. Elsewhere," constantly present and engaging in commercial films like "The Green Mile" or "Disturbia," one of those guys like Richard Jenkins who just plain classes the joint up when he's in a film.  Well, "Inside Moves" was the first thing he did, and he's just great in it.  He plays Jerry, a bartender who befriends Roary when he first wanders into Max's Bar, a dingy little hole in the wall.  The regulars are an eccentric bunch:  one's blind, one's in a wheelchair, and the third has a pair of hooks instead of hands.  Roary's perfect, like the final piece in a matched set.  He ends up befriending not only Jerry, but also Blue Louis (Bill Henderson), Stinky (Bert Remsen), and Wings (Harold Russell) and then, later, a new waitress named Louise (Diana Scarwid).  And little by little, Roary comes back to life as he channels all his energy, all of his feelings, into being a great friend, supporting Jerry's dream, doing his best to keep Max's bar open as a place for all these people to be together.  Roary finds a purpose, and the movie could easily have just been that story and been good.  But it digresses, and it tells a very natural, charming, low-key love story between Louise and Roary, and it also deals with Jerry's girlfriend, a junkie named Anne (Amy Wright, one of those faces you've seen a thousand times in stuff since the '80s) who causes him nothing but pain.  It's a film about unconventional family, and while that's not a particularly novel idea, the thing that makes "Inside Moves" a minor classic is the way it really does convince you that this group of characters could be that family.  It doesn't feel forced or scripted or phony... it's just this warm loose casual thing that Donner does that sells it.  He picks just the right moment to cut out of the film, too, instead of doing what it looks like they're going to do.  It's a huge smile and a huge payoff.

If you're looking for something that's not a recent release that you might otherwise miss, some little forgotten gem worth taking a chance on, try "Inside Moves."  If you've seen it, you'll know why I'm giving it such a strong recommendation, and if you haven't, you definitely should.  The print on the DVD is okay, but I'll take it.  It's not a great crisp perfect transfer by any means.  It's sort of soft and noisy.  But I'm sure they used the best print they had available.  The truth is that if your film wasn't a hit, it may not be treated with kid gloves by the film archivists for the studio.  It may just be forgotten, left on a shelf to stew.  I hope someone at Columbia checks in on "Ishtar" from time to time to make sure it's ready when Criterion finally wises up and comes calling.  This is a near-perfect execution of a very difficult kind of film to do right, the maintream feel-good handicapped movie, but "Inside Moves" never feels like a pander or a cheap ploy.  It's as real as they come, and worth a rediscovery by as wide an audience as possible.

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