Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '85 - Davey Collins ""

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Underrated '85 - Davey Collins

Davey Collins had the same misspent childhood that many of you did: Watching strange movies via late-night/Saturday afternoon television programming or VHS. As he crawled into and back out of adolescence, he realized movies were the most important thing in his life and had taught him most of what he knew. He ditched class and went to the library to read books about film noir and westerns. He discovered some of his favorite filmmakers weren’t always the ones widely appreciated (“Where’s the Reginald Le Borg chapter?”). His first appreciation of literature came about by tracking down and reading the source material for his favorite films. He currently works in the hospitality racket and catches himself shining his ass from time to time by making allusions to old movies while mired in meetings. Lately, he’s been getting together material for a print film zine entitled “Strange Illusions” which focuses primarily on budget-starved cinema of the 1930’s-1970’s. He’s on Twitter @Davey_Wade.

Nostalgia is hard work for the subconscious. It at once demands a sugar-coating of memories and a cloaking of all the horrible little details that manifest in the dwindling hours of the Golden Days. Perhaps it’s exhaustion from that ongoing mental process that has led me to abandon much of the nostalgia of my own youth (which would very much begin in or just before 1985) and replace it with a wistfulness for an era I never experienced. I have no first-hand recollections of any egregious social injustices, war-horrors, or “primitive” dental procedures of the 1940’s. But I sure can fill in the blanks when it comes to thoughts of tuning the radio into clear broadcasts of Quiet Please, ducking into cigar-smoke-permeated newsstands to flip through detective rags, or (most of all) sitting through double-features at a quantity of movie houses. For me 1985 is just another year, and while I have fond memories of watching movies at the age of six, I also remember my penchant for occasionally shitting my shorts or trying to get my shoes tied by someone who could keep a secret. In honor of the real little kid Davey who would advise me against trading places with him, the following impressions are only sparsely sentimentalized.

SMOOTH TALK (1985; Joyce Chopra)
Wherein Laura Dern goes into heat. Said force of nature cannot be curtailed via the civilized suggestions of her little-big sister. When her mother curtly lets on she’s wise to it, Dern dishonestly objects “Jesus Christ!” Her father doesn’t fathom much, probably from lack trying. She wears the same revealing little number to the burger hangout two nights running. Night one is a butterflied success, night two’s an absolute threat. Or a promise. Which one is worse?

This is our tale, essentially, aroused to something distinguished by James Glennon’s stunner of a cinematography job, the shifting perspective of landscape, James Taylor’s music, Treat Williams’ nearly one-man-show third act, the Joyce Carol Oates source, and, for some, the “totally 80’s” bits that can’t help surfacing. For any film concerning a sexual coming-of-age, that tattered old standby that doesn’t quite tingle anymore, couldn’t ask for a more impressive, artful assembly.

Laura Dern as Connie in her cut-offs, trying to cheer up a sexually lagging girlfriend by awkwardly writhing to James Taylor’s wonderful cover of the great Jimmy Jones tune “Handy Man.” That’s been an unforgettable scene; her feigned confidence epitomizing not only the film, but adolescence in general. Smooth Talk drills to the root of that hellish period of teenage existence, portraying in almost 1:1 terms the assorted masks worn all along. Connie’s behavior is largely dependent on who she happens to be interacting with at the given moment (most noticeably contrasting between her mother and father). Is there a work that portrays such as accurately as here? For each person(s) in her life, sister/friends/parents/boys/lunatic, there is a different Connie.

Visually, the movie is exceedingly interesting. James Glennon had recently lensed El Norte (that wholly beautiful and heartbreaking picture that everyone should see), and continues some of those remarkable hues and patterns here. When the script begins to merge the on-ramp of a made-for-tv moral scare picture, it is Glennon that keeps our faith. Let me not besmirch the effort and vision of director Joyce Chopra, who could have enjoyed an interesting career in Europe. Some of her magically strange sensibilities probably weren’t suited for domestic audiences: An ambiguous sister character and a sense of place which I believe are intentionally warped in effort to keep viewers off-balanced with the shifting tones…and there are as many tones as there are masks in Connie’s repertoire (note the incongruous “totally 80’s” mall scene with much chatter about boys’ buns). After The Lemon Sisters, was her feature-film career not poised to take-off? Instead she has worked prolifically in television, usually turning out potboilers. Who knows. I can’t pick ‘em. If I could, Chopra would have been chosen.

As for Treat Williams as Arnold Friend, what can I say? He’s goddamned entertaining. Just when he’s tipping off the rails into self-awareness, he shifts his weight in a brilliant way and reels it back in. Whether he could have carried the whole picture, I’m unsure, and maybe we’re better off not finding out. When the tone turns, and Treat’s at the bat, it doesn’t matter if what came before was important art or so much wet coffee grounds for the compost heap. He’s Arnold Friend and that’s what he wants to be to you. Oates’ patterned her short story after the infamous Pied Piper of Tucson (the adventures of murderer Charles Schmid dramatized in the underappreciated 1971 film The Todd Killings). This means that Williams’ character is indeed a potential killer. Laura, Laura, Laura.
BOYS NEXT DOOR (1985; Penelope Spheeris)
Penelope Spheeris is one of my favorite filmmakers. She’s really wonderful. She’s a hero. A great artist, a treasure, an inimitable voice. She’s a badass. Have I piled it on enough? No, I don’t think so. In movies like Suburbiaand Dudes, she helped me to define my adolescence by allowing me to step back and be a spectator to some of my own attitudes. Her style rang true. It still does. If I ever made a movie, there would be much time in preparation spent with her work. When she landed the Wayne’s World job and followed it up with a secession of big studio comedies, who could blame her? Some of her lesser credits probably sounded like a fun time and I respect her capability for the offhand. When she’s at her best, she’s on another level.

Boys Next Door, her follow-up to the classic Suburbia, is often overlooked. Given the presence of young Charlie Sheen (who follows his brother’s mischievously resentful character in the previous year’s Repo Manwith a similar interpretation…he even emits the same familiar chortle) and the violent subject-matter, it’s a surprise it hasn’t found the same cult following of, say, River’s Edge or Bad Boys. Spheeris doesn’t play for surprises, the opening credit sequence catalogs the crimes of several infamous real-life killers including Henry Lee Lucas, the likely inspiration (star Maxwell Caulfield even bears a resemblance to a young Lucas). Teenage Henry Lee Lucas and high school Ottis Toole. For the significant portion of the audience who endured high school rather than experienced it, we jump right on sides with Caulfield and Sheen. They attend a graduation party and act supremely insolent, giving the douche bags and unattainable locker-side princesses the kiss-off. They don’t seem to have anyone but each other.

Before their lives are resigned to repetitive factory work, they road-trip to L.A. where Spheeris builds tension en route to fulfilling the movie’s promised look at disturbing violence and murder. Spheeris’ L.A. is a carefully implemented entity in her employ. The viewer may want the establishing montage of the cityscape to go on another half-hour before catching back up with the compelling story. But as the Boys cruise the streets, that vicarious interest we take in the travelogue crashes violently before we have a chance to step off the ride. The rest of the film unfolds to a series of harrowing vignettes as Caulfield comes unhinged, kept lucid enough to careen into the next victim by classic enabler Sheen (where Estevez exclaims with glee, “Carjackings, shootouts, real life car chases! This is great!” inRepo Man, one could easily imagine Sheen emulating with “Beatings, hate-crimes, murders…!”). It’s a depressing trip, though Spheeris’ vivid style and smart pacing injects every scene with something compelling. Impressively, her damaged characters remain somewhat sympathetic throughout. Either it’s some kind of masterpiece or your reviewer is damaged himself.

MY AMERICAN COUSIN (1985; Sandy Wilson)
Happened upon this on cable late one boring Sunday night while mired in a particularly friendless summer slump of my teenage career. It went down like so much wellbutrin, sending me to bed with some unpronounced optimism. By the next morning the effects had worn off, but my brain tagged My American Cousin and tossed in a bin with various other bits of nostalgic mental ephemera (that dangerous territory I’ve promised not to tread). Recently, even as seen through my weary Turkish eyes and with a new interpretation, it gave again; lifting me from adult-related doldrums.

As a Canadian-produced entry into the “coming-of-age in the rockin’ fifties” subgenre, the picture is already launching from vistas distinct from similar rose-tinted Hollywood productions even before we see what director Sandy Wilson is doing. Familiar scenes, clich├ęs even, are examined with the kind of inoffensive self-consciousness that’s produced the best pop art. The spirit of fun is never lost on the script or with young actress Margaret Langrick who is pitch-perfect as the anxious pre-teen. The second act is a most tremendous achievement in the picaresque style of storytelling. John Wildman as the titular cousin (who can’t always blanket his Canadian accent) gets conned by Langrick into taking her and her giggling gum-smacking girlfriends on a joyride in his red Caddy convertible. This accomplished extended sequence expertly bottles that fleeting weightlessness of youth while defining the characters with self-contained arcs. Without wanting to raise expectations out of reason, as a film-enthusiast, I live for this kind of expression.

And it’s just postcard-beautiful British Columbia. Obviously a talented filmmaker, Sandy Wilson followed it up with a sequel (which I’ve never seen) and a third feature (Harmony Cats) before practically vanishing. Come back, Sandy. Great use of a tune from Canadian country and western singer Wilf Carter and some familiar “oldies” (some of which seemed replaced with cheap cover-versions…were these changed for home video?). At one point, the characters opt not to see Curucu, Beast of the Amazon and I can’t imagine why.
SEVEN MINUTES IN HEAVEN (1985; Linda Feferman)
In cinema, it’s hard to dismiss a failure if the results amount to something unique. I detect that to be the case of Seven Minutes in Heaven, a strange teen sex drama that your big sister might have whispered about. Co-writer/director Linda Feferman seems intent on casting a respectful eye on teen issues, but perhaps had her vision somewhat blurred in the shooting and editing process. We wind up with something more interesting than what a perfect execution of the concept might have wrought. If hard-pressed to describe the feel of the movie I’d say “As if Charles Schultz authored a distinctly feminist teen film with penis jokes.” At times it felt very much like a Peanuts special…Well, that’s the closest I can come to pinning this one down anyway.

It’s that elusiveness of tone and overall purpose that keeps me fascinating with Seven Minutes in Heaven. Surely I’ve never been part of the target audience so maybe I just don’t “get it” but even if so, I can groan at some truly awfully conceived scenes and marvel at some of the highly perceptive ones. All of the young actors (the core of which actually LOOK like high school sophomores) are convincing to the extent the material will allow. That show-stealer Maddie Corman wasn’t immediately thereafter cast in her own television series betrays a lapse in the talent-scouting of the time (Best scene: Maddie drums up the nerve to put the moves on her guy friend while watching Gail Russell on TV). Most of all I wonder why Jennifer Connelly says “doll baby” instead of “baby doll.”

SHANGHAI 13 (1985; Cheh Chang)
***Due to my repeated referencing over the years of The Encyclopedia of Martial Arts Movies (1995, Scarecrow Press), which lists this as a 1985 release, I considered it as such without consorting other sources which list it as ’84. Please forgive me if one is more correct than the other***

The kung fu film is oft maligned for populating extreme poles of storytelling, stripped down or indecipherably mazy, all the while high profile filmmakers are given run-of-the-house to commit same. If we can praise non-linear structure and dialogue (or terse straightforwardness) can we not find merit in such an incredibly absurd etiquette of getting a most impractical form of expression on screen? Chang Cheh’s last hurrah for kung fu. The script is both incoherently complex and remarkably plain-dealing. The cast is all-star, culled from the dreams of devoted fu heads. The kung fu itself is magnificent and furious; it’s a hell of way bodies can move.

Though not the quite the last of the “old school,” it perhaps should have been. Cheh, not a martial artist like Liu Chia-liang, is a pure filmmaker whose personal themes defined an era. His reuniting with some of the greatest performers in the genre (Ti Lung, David Chiang, Jimmy Wang Yu, Chen Kuan-tai, Bryan “Beardy” Leung, Chi Kuan-chun, key members of the “Venoms”) for a work turned out just under the profitability cutoff is one of cinema’s underreported feel-good stories. Maybe I deserve my scoffs for defending kung fu movies as if guarding the temple walls. But haven’t some of us died with our eyes open for silent films, various new waves, Edgar G. Ulmer, UPA cartoons, Kenneth Anger? I just want to die standing.

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