Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '96 - Rik Tod Johnson ""

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Underrated '96 - Rik Tod Johnson

Rik Tod Johnson is a dedicated cinephile who can be found writing at The Cinema 4 Pylon:
Here is an Underrrated '45 list he did for RPS late last year:
He can be found on Twitter @TheCinema4Pylon:

Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny
Dir.: Uli Edel
An HBO TV movie, when I first saw and recorded this film, it was called simply Rasputin. Now known by the longer title following its video release, anyone familiar with this true and legitimately strange tale of a seemingly mad, former monk and faith healer who worms his way into the good graces of the doomed family of Tsar Nicholas II should not need the extra words in the title to convince them that watching Alan Rickman playing Rasputin for two-plus hours will be anything but a mesmerizing experience. Rickman, who just left this earthly void within the past month, justly won an Emmy Award for Lead Actor in a Mini-series or Movie for this role, as well as a Golden Globe. Played less for horror than previous attempts at telling the story of this strange being, Rasputin is meant to convey a sense of the real world, downplaying the supposedly mystical elements of his nature, though they don't skimp on allowing those supernatural leanings to color his personality within the film. Also of note is Sir Ian McKellen as Nicholas II, Greta Scacchi (who also won an Emmy) as Tsarina Alexandra, and a marvelous David Warner as Rasputin's rival, Dr. Eugene Botkin.

The Line King: The Al Hirschfeld Story
Dir.: Susan Warms Dryfoos
From the time that I was young up until the year that this finely detailed documentary came out, I would run into the artwork of Al Hirschfeld everywhere. Posters, newspapers, magazines, advertising, book covers, calendars... and eventually in an animated interstitial used for several years on Turner Classic Movies. I loved finding examples of his wonderful caricatures of Hollywood and Broadway royalty, and reveled in his sense of line and his ability to capture exactly in pen and ink that mysterious nature within each actor or musician that made them so fascinating to their fans. Through much of the twentieth century, Hirschfeld art was revered by most critics and instantly recognizable to the public. A popular pastime was even created by his use of his daughter Nina's name, as he would sneak lines into each portrait that would spell out her name, often hidden in hair or clothing in mostly surprising ways. He would sign his name in the corner and affix a number that told the viewer how many "Ninas" were hidden inside. The cleverly titled The Line King tells nearly the whole story (Hirschfeld died in 2003 at the age of 99), and that story is nothing short of amazing, so filled with both connections and near-misses with passing celebrities, partnerships, and events, almost like a real-life Zelig. Oscar-nominated The Line King may have been, but it has somewhat disappeared in recent years (it is long out of print on DVD and has yet to be on Blu-ray). So, if you get a chance to watch this somewhere, anywhere... please do so.

The Whole Wide World
Dir.: Dan Ireland
Considering its title (derived from a letter by H.P. Lovecraft) encompasses such a massive area, The Whole Wide World has become somewhat of a lost film. It contains arguably the purest performances of its lead actors -- Renée Zellweger and Vincent D'Onofrio -- in telling the true story of the more than friendship between Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard and schoolteacher and writer Novalyne Price Ellis. While the film won or was nominated for numerous festival prizes, it disappeared at Oscar time, which I feel is unjust. At first, I feared that in introducing us to Howard, the film would be swamped with hokey, transitional scenes where elements of Howard's pulp adventures would seep into the imagery, and would therefore overpower the love story at the heart of the film. But no such thing occurs. We are given brief monologues where D'Onofrio dramatically relates elements of his writings and poems, and there is much talk of Weird Tales and the fiction scene of the day, but the film is happy in its rural, small town simplicity and the love story at its core. The actors are left to tell the story, and both leads play off each other perfectly. Of course, there will be tragedy ahead -- Howard took his own life at the age of 36, but we are left as Novalyne is, distanced from the tragedy itself, with memories of a brightly shining presence who had nothing but the whole wide world before him.

Big Night
Dir.: Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott
I don't really think this movie is underrated, as it received considerable acclaim when it was released, and even holds a 96% critics and 84% audience ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, a site I rarely use except for when it serves a certain point I have to make. It is clear that the majority of people who have seen Big Night know how wonderful it is. But an art house hit is still small potatoes in the box office world overall, and throughout the twenty years since it came out, I meet people constantly who have never even heard of Big Night, let alone seen it. I think that I watched the film about thirty times between its release and its first couple of years on video. The food that is served throughout the film looks ravishing, as it should be in any film revolving around two Italian brothers (named, humorously and chronologically, Primo and Secondo) struggling to make a go of it in the restaurant biz in New Jersey in the 1950s, but the film is so much more than an ad for Bon Appétit. The plot hinges around the brothers pinning their hopes on a "big night" when music legend Louis Prima is rumored to be dropping by their restaurant, but everything in the universe -- including infidelity, sabotage, and much brotherly feuding -- may conspire against them. Co-director, co-writer and star Stanley Tucci plays the younger brother who is more business-minded and craves success; Tony Shalhoub is the older brother who is so meticulous in his preparations that he cannot stand the slightest thought of changing his masterful recipes and catering to the masses. A marvelous cast, including Ian Holm, Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver, Allison Janney, Marc Anthony, co-director Campbell Scott, and Liev Schreiber make this must viewing. Funny, tense, touching, and bittersweet by turns, Big Night really is a sumptuous and filling film. Just don't ask Primo for a side of spaghetti.

Other underrated faves from 1996: Schizopolis (Steven Soderbergh), Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas), Joe's Apartment (John Payson), Microcosmos (Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou), Hype! (Doug Pray), and Killer Tongue [La lengua asesina] (Alberto Sciamma).

1 comment:

The Working Dead said...

Big Night has been a favorite of mine for awhile, but I am ashamed to say that the others have indeed been overlooked by me.

I'm actually very disappointed in myself, not only for not seeing Rasputin, but for not even knowing it existed. That is now a must-see.

Great list, once again.