Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '86 - James David Patrick ""

Friday, May 27, 2016

Underrated '86 - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer with a lifelong habit of obsessive movie watching. His current project, #Bond_age_, the James Bond Social Media Project can be found at Find him on twitter at @007hertzrumble.
The first step in compiling an Underrated 'XX list is creating a tally of all potential candidates. I start with the Letterboxd list of most popular movies from the year and scan the titles until I find a movie that feels way too low. After one pass, on average, I come up with a list of 10-15 titles, plus another handful that I want to watch or rewatch. My list for 1986 started at 27 titles. As a result, I'm going to go as far as to suggest that 1986 is the finest year in underappreciated cinema history. Crown it now. Plan the parade. I could have easily added another five titles to this list of eight, but I'll spare you my magnum opus of Underrated 1986. If you can't get enough 1986, hit me up on Twitter and I'll gladly offer my list of B-sides. Even C-sides. My irrational love of 80's cinema runs deep, friends. 

Clockwise (1986, Christopher Morahan) 
Basil Fawlty on Adderall and subjected to a no good very bad day. It's hard to be disappointed by John Cleese. I get warm and fuzzies for John Cleese as Q/R in the latter Pierce Brosnan James Bond films. (It's probably because I feel like his report with Brosnan is a half-step removed from the Parrot Sketch.) Clockwise tells the very British tale of an obsessively punctual secondary school headmaster who finds himself on the worst road trip ever to receive a prestigious award that would justify his time-scrimping ways. Watching Cleese play a character that steadily unravels over the course of 90 minutes should be more than enough reason to watch Clockwise. 

Some have criticized the film for being inconsequential. True. There's no character arc, no real drama. John Cleese's Mr. Stimpson is an insufferable but still somehow likeable human. Mr. Stimpson must get from Point A to Point B with the aide of one of his students without making a complete ass of himself. (Spoiler alert: he makes a complete ass of himself.) Though we know he'll eventually reach Point B and the misunderstandings will eventually be resolved, the movie serves sidetracks of increasingly delicious absurdity for our anti-hero. When a movie focuses on depicting John Cleese in a rabid state of mania, you'll be entertained. That's all you really need to know.
Crossroads (1986, Walter Hill) 
It's like this Walter Hill film fell off the face the earth. Except that it's still here and available to watch whenever someone has enough good judgment to seek it out. In 1986 the movie opened with a number of glowing reviews. And then poof. Gone. 

Crossroads is a retelling of the Robert Johnson myth through the travels of Joe Seneca's septuagenarian harmonica bluesman (and former companion of Robert Johnson) and his go-gettum white prot‚g‚ guitarist (Ralph Macchio). Macchio, clad in his finest TJ Maxx Miami Vice jacket, locates the bluesman hiding out in a NYC nursing home. The youngster wants to record a lost Robert Johnson song with the old man, thus solidifying his name as legitimate performer of the blues, and not just a Julliard-trained classical guitarist with no soul. 

This variation of the Faustian bargain feels familiar. Your soul for everything you desire. But Crossroads offers more. Crossroads discusses the value inherent to the experiences of a life lived - even the hardships and the lies and the regrets. Seneca's performance conveys every ounce of that character's turmoil and fear. It's not only his confrontation with mortality, it's also his certain confrontation with the consequences of a deal he made with a man named Scratch down at the crossroads. It's a tremendous bit of acting that has largely gone unheralded over the last 30 years. And just when you think the whole story might be getting a bit stale, maybe a bit preachy, Crossroads stages a most excellent guitar battle climax between Ralph Macchio and Steve Vai. I won't spoil it with any more gross details because it's even more amazing and absurd and fist-pump stirring than it sounds.
Heat (1986, Dick Richards) 
I've been a longtime defender of Burt Reynolds' film production of the 1980's. Not only are his films critically undervalued, but his 1980's filmography is also an interesting extra-texual study of a box office star in decline. By the mid-1980's his iconic laugh and comic machismo had been replaced by weary disillusionment. In succession he starred in Stick, Heat, and Malone - critical and commercial failures. They're easily dismissed, but far more interesting than face value in that they were a conscious attempt by Reynolds to rebrand his cinematic persona. 

The low-key Heat stands out for the very same reasons it's forgotten. Reynolds plays Nick Escalante, a heavy for hire in the not-so-great city of Las Vegas. (No job is too small for the right price.) He takes a few punches to help an emasculated fellow appeal to his fianc‚. He helps a young girl seek revenge for a sexual assault by "softening" up some goons so she can waltz in and exact a measure of revenge with a pair of garden shears. "I want to hold his nuts in my hand," she says. Nick dreams of leaving his personal hellhole and retiring to Venice. Only he's a gambling addict with a knack for pushing his luck. Though the film's billed as a thriller, Heat's an episodic character study, a gritty neo-noir, with a few comically awkward slo-mo action shots mixed in. Burt and co-star Peter MacNicol make an unlikely but fascinating duo. 

William Goldman, who wrote the script from his own novel, called Heat one of his major disasters. Consider that Robert Altman was originally tabbed to direct and worked one day on the film before abandoning the project after his Canadian cameraman Pierre Mignot failed to get a work visa. Dick Richards (Farwell, My Lovely) signed on to finish the project, but a scuffle with Reynolds landed Richards a broken jaw. In total 6 different directors worked on the film, fueling Heat's stigma as true cinematic Titanic. Maybe I'm just attracted to these kinds of wreckages but I find Heat to be a rather fascinating portrait of a damaged character reflecting an actor's damaged big-screen persona. Maybe it's also because I still sense the influence of Altman. One could even make a few connections between Heat and Altman's The Long Goodbye. In my world that's high praise. Give Burt another chance, will you?
Off Beat (1986, Michael Dinner) 
At first I blamed the Judge Reinhold/Meg Tilly combo-blinders (OMG MEG TILLY AND JUDGE REINHOLD IN THE SAME MOVIE! WHAT BEAUTIFUL DIMENSIONAL SCHISM IS THIS?), but I grew to sincerely enjoy this mild-mannered, milquetoast comedy about a futsy librarian ensnared in global deceit and espionage. Okay, none of that. The futsy librarian merely pretends to be a cop to get his buddy (an actual cop) out of the highly embarrassing audition for a police department public relations musical stage production. It's no more complicated than that. Lighthearted but with the sincere heart that only the Judge can deliver. Off Beat solidified itself as a winner when it teased traditional mistaken identity plot points (and the associated contrived drama), but sidestepped them all in favor of earnest and reasonable reactions. Everyone accepted that of course Judge Reinhold was just being a good guy with the best of intentions. And of course Judge Reinhold would fall madly in love with Meg Tilly. (Who wouldn't?) He was forgiven, and conclusion reached without even an insufferable "missing you" rom-com montage. Everybody just let bygones be bygones. 

This movie also features Joe Mantegna, Harvey Keitel and John Turturro if you can believe it. I'm not alone in this affection for Off Beat. I had to do a little bit of research to prove I wasn't crazy. Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 stars and called it "a movie about sweet, likable people who get into a funny situation and watch it grow funnier the more they try to escape from it." I don't always agree with Roger, but in this instance I'll let him be my wingman.
Round Midnight (1986, Bertrand Tavernier) 
A powerful, potent tale of fictional jazz legend Dale Turner, played by real jazz legend Dexter Gordon. Gordon's natural charisma and gravitas anchor a film riddled with moments of tenderness and solitude. At times infringing on the cinema verite style of filmmaking, Round Midnight is a love letter to fans of jazz. It's hard to fathom that this film remains rather unseen, even by music fans. You don't have to love jazz to appreciate Round Midnight, but if you love jazz, there's just no excuse. It's a thrill watching the late, great Dexter Gordon own the screen in his only film performance. He offers a snapshot of himself, baring his soul (and maybe a bit of Bud Powell's as well, based on what I've read) and hiding behind the guise of the fictional story to suggest that it's not just Dexter Gordon you're seeing, but the struggles of all great jazz musicians of that era.  
Round Midnight and Crossroads share more than a few thematic threads. The nature of inspiration. The potency of our scars. The tragedy of creative brilliance. The movie shocked me upon first viewing - a viewing I believe was inspired by Midnight's appearance on another list featured on Rupert Pupkin Speaks.
X: The Unheard Music (1986, W.T. Morgan) 
A visceral collage of sight and sound. Familiarity with the band not necessary to enjoy this prescient, experimental rock-doc about the punk band that nobody knew because, as the film and the band members suggest, X never sold their soul to the highly commercialized institution. 

Fortunes have shifted somewhat for X, who are now revered for the very qualities that made them largely anonymous in the mid-1980's. Therefore, It might not be entirely fair to call X "the unheard music" anymore; they've gained a larger reputation as champions of the 1980's punk scene, and maybe even as the quintessential L.A. punk outfit. I do think it's fair to say that X: The Unheard Music is more X: The Unheard Music: the Unseen Documentary. The film stands out because it's more about the music and our visceral response to the music than it is the parts that actually fall into the "documentary" genre. This is experimental filmmaking, an 84-minute music video inspired by Un Chien Andalou.

Bonus picks:

Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986, Gene Saks) 
An underappreciated dramedy about growing up Polish-Jewish in the 1930's based on the Neil Simon play. Brighton reminds us that sex-crazed teenage boys were sex-crazed teenage boys in all eras. And while the film trades in some of the hornball tropes of the 1980's (albeit with a PG-13 decorum), Jonathan Silverman (in his first starring role) offers us a character about which we actually grow to care. He ponders how he'll make the Yankees with a name like Eugene, bemoans the haunting smell of cooked cabbage, and discusses with his brother which woman has the best boobs in the neighborhood. The movie bounces along, a series of clipped vignettes and side chats with the camera. No scene runs too long and most end abruptly after witty jab or comical quip. A solid script and quotable dialogue boost many endearing moments of pubescent angst. Blythe Danner and Bob Dishy are both fantastic as our horny, liver-hating protagonist's parents.
Peking Opera Blues (1986, Tsui Hark) 
Maybe it's not underrated, per say. I've seen claims that this is Tsui Hark's finest film. But is it just me or does nobody talk about this movie anymore? When I'm considering what movies are truly underseen or underrated for these lists, I often take to Letterboxd to compare log numbers. As I debated the merits of including Peaking Opera Blues on this list, I compared it with another Hong Kong film from 1986, A Better Tomorrow, just to see where it stood, raw numbers-wise. Woo's film has been logged more than six times that of Hark's. There's a few contributing factors here. Action readily transcends cultural barriers, and Woo's a far bigger name here in the United States than Hark. But I don't care about any of that. Great movies are great movies and Peking Opera Blues is a great goddamn movie, the kind of broad comedy that recalls the screwballs of the classic studio era. Bringing Up Baby comes to mind. A genre-less blend of action, comedy, adventure and gender-bending chaos. The narrative never stops for a breather, but the controlled, anarchic chaos is hardly the only selling point. Set in 1913 Beijing, Peking Opera Blues offers a visual splendor of sets, costumes and theatrical design. You may note a few murky bits of gender politics, but it's hard to focus precisely on any of the film's warts when the story constantly usurps expectation. Every character in the film is putting on some kind of performance - be it for the cause of theater, espionage, or rebellion - all for the benefit of our pure entertainment.

1 comment:

beamish13 said...

Terrific choices! CLOCKWISE has been a longtime favourite of mine. Cleese's final monologue ranks alongside Richard E. Grant's opening tal in HOW TO GET AHEAD IN ADVERTISING as one of the best comedic speeches I've ever head in a film. Michael Frayn is one hell of a novelist and playwright.

I just saw X: THE UNHEARD MUSIC a few months ago. Amazing how much it feels like a documentary produced today, especially with the animated interludes. The scene with the band recording "White Girl" with Ray Manzarek is incredible.