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1. At Close Range – If there were a list to be kept of the some of the most underrated filmmakers of the last three decades, surely James Foley would be ranked somewhere near the top. Yes, he made the goofy Madonna flick “Who’s That Girl”, the sentimental clap-trap of “Two Bits” and is now slated to helm the upcoming second AND third entries of the “Fifty Shades” saga. But he has also the directed the best Mamet adaptation (“Glengarry Glen Ross”), the best Jim Thompson adaptation (“After Dark, My Sweet”) and the dizzyingly pulp-y “Fear”, which introduced the world to the pleasures of a ‘roided-up performance by Mark Wahlberg. His best film though is this true-crime drama, starring Sean and Christopher Penn and, in what may be his best performance ever, Christopher Walken. In fact, I’m gonna swing big here and say that not only is “At Close Range” one of the most underrated films of 1986, it might be one of the most underrated films of the 1980s. Hell, if I were so inclined, I’d probably make an alternative top 10 of the 1980s and put it on that list. It’s that good. For the uninitiated, the Penn brothers play Brad and Tommy Whitewood, estranged from their crime boss father Brad Sr. (Walken) with whom they reconnect and in whose footsteps they are trying to futilely follow. Only, it’s not the crimes and the cops that are their ultimate undoing. Tragically, it’s the actions of Brad Sr., who sets into play a course of destruction and retribution after the boy’s failure leads the senior Whitewood to believe he is going to take a fall. The movie is brutal, bloody and honest and pisses all over not just the time-honored notion of honor amongst thieves, but that blood is thicker than water.
2. The Wraith – A lot of the time, this kind of retrospective list-making takes a nostalgic turn to the tune of “Remember when…” Like, remember when PG-13 was kind of dangerous? Nowadays, I watch a PG-13 tentpole picture, I rarely if ever feel a sense of danger or unease or shock. It’s all so sanitized. Which is why we can watch entire swaths of people be mowed down, huge chunks of the globe be crushed, or adolescents achingly pine for one another, and not feel anything. No blood boiling, no pulses raised, and definitely NO erections. But in the mid-1980s, right after the creation of the rating, you could walk into a theater and see a PG-13 film that went for the jugular. “The Wraith” is that kind of movie. It plays a game of double-dutch on the line between PG-13 and R. When people get stabbed in this movie, you see them get stabbed. When people die, it’s ghoulish and haunting. And when Sherilyn Fenn gets naked, she gets fucking naked. Plus, the movie is like an exploitation fever dream. It’s a modern day, hard-rocking sci-fi/horror hybrid “High Plains Drifter” set in the world of drag-racing dipshits with nothing better to do because they live in the middle of the fucking desert. God damn it, I’m so excited just typing this up, I want to take a break and go watch it right now. SIDE NOTE: It is a little unfortunate that I do keep bringing up the more dangerous spirit of this film, since camera operator Bruce Ingram was killed filming one of the car chases. Another crew member was seriously injured and there have been rumblings that this sad series of events put a real damper on the career of director Mike Marvin. No movie is worth the lives or health of the people making them.
3. No Retreat, No Surrender/Firewalker – Speaking of remember when…remember when they tried to indoctrinate little kids into the world of kung fu fanaticism with martial arts movies aimed at general audiences? I miss that shit. And “The Karate Kid” remake doesn’t count, okay? What’s great is that while big studios were inching into that game with movies like the OG “Karate Kid”, you had R-rated schlockmeisters Cannon and New World Pictures jumping feet first into the pool with perfectly loony junk like “Firewalker” and “No Retreat, No Surrender”. Look at these movies. They are kid-friendly kung fu run through the filter of true exploitation studios. “Firewalker” is trying to cash in (much like Cannon’s Allen Quatermain films) on the boffo box-office of the first two Indiana Jones pictures, while “No Retreat” treads the path blazed by previous purveyors of cheap chop-socky by humping the already dried-up corpse of Bruce Lee’s legacy. To be fair, neither of these are good movies. (As far as Lou Gossett Jr’s post-Oscar garbage is concerned I’ll take “Firewalker” over “Jaws 3-D”, though.) Yet both are dumbfoundingly giddy experiences, buoyed by some truly fast and furious martial arts set-pieces. “Firewalker” has a wonderfully goofy take on the classic bar brawl, with Chuck Norris (“Did he mention my sister?”) kicking everyone’s ass in a little cantina down in Central America. “No Retreat” has it beat though, with its handful of final matches at a local martial arts tournament that get hijacked by greasy organized crime clichés and their merciless Russian henchmen played by future superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme. The way the last two matches in “No Retreat” are shot and choreographed is masterful.
4. Murphy’s Law – Like a lot of my film geek peers, I have a fondness for most of the crap Cannon was churning out, quality be damned. I also was raised (more or less) by a grandfather who not only was a Charles Bronson fan, but who kinda looked like everyone’s favorite avenging angel. As such, I have a lot of love for the Cannon-era works of the other Chuck, particularly the films he continued to make with B-movie journeyman J. Lee Thompson(Thompson also directed Norris in the aforementioned “Firewalker”). Now, a lot of people like to poo-poo the latter portion of Thompson’s career, intimating that the man swung from Citizen Kane levels of output to Troma levels of waste. I disagree. He just went from big-budget to low-budget. Yes, “Cape Fear” and “The Guns of Navarone” are great movies, but they are B movies. He brings the same level of skill to “10 to Midnight” and “Happy Birthday to Me” at a tenth of the cost. Of all the films that Thompson directed in his twilight years, “Murphy’s Law” might be the breeziest. It’s practically an action comedy compared to the Mormon massacres of “Messenger of Death” and the sleazy sexploitation of “Kinjite”. In the film, Bronson plays a hardass L.A. detective who has been framed for murder by an ex-con he put behind bars. Since this is equal opportunity exploitation, the ex-con is a woman (Carrie Snodgress) closer in age to Bronson. After Bronson is arrested, he finds himself on the run while handcuffed to a young, female, foul-mouthed petty thief that he had just arrested. The thief is played by Kathleen Wilhoite, who would go on to have a fantastic career as a character actress in film and television, but whom always remember for the way she gasped at a fully nude Patrick Swayze in “Road House.” ANYWAY, “Murphy’s Law” is a non-stop action thriller, lent much levity and an odd sense of warmth by the relationship between the two leads. That being said, it’s still Cannon-era Bronson, so SPOILER when our lead hero has the villainess dangling from a balcony and she tells him to drop dead, his witty rejoinder is… “Ladies first.” Classic.
5. Jumpin’ Jack Flash – “Murphy’s Law” was one of many action comedies littering cinemas throughout the 80s. Outside of slashers, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a single genre I associate more with the decade. Sadly, one of the best of the bunch seems to have been all but forgotten in current conversations. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was the second film starring Whoopi Goldberg and the first film for director Penny Marshall. The movie was a massive success and really jump-started the careers of two of the heaviest hitters of the 90s. So, what gives? Why aren’t people still talking about it? Should we break out the dreaded “S-word”? Since far too much of the film geek landscape is ruled by men, yeah I’m gonna call sexism. What else could it be? The movie is brilliantly written, staged and executed. It moves like a bat out of hell. Goldberg is funny as fuck, vulgar in a way that few male comics would even dare. And the suspense and action are, again, 100% legit. This is not sanitized, PG-13, post ‘90s action comedy. People die and there are stakes. As ridiculous as some of the scenarios are (“I’m a little black woman in a big silver box. On the top of it it says phone. HELP!!!”), there is a real sense of danger. Plus, Whoopi’s role as an action comedy star needs to be revisited. While “Burglar” and “Fatal Beauty” aren’t as good as this film, they are prime examples of a very short window in time when a woman like Whoopi could headline R-rated films of this ilk. If you haven’t seen this before, or it’s been a while since you have, you need to catch up with it ASAP. You won’t regret it.
6. Link - We’re all film geeks here, right? So we all know that Aussie filmmaker Richard Franklin was the protégé and heir apparent to Hitchcock who made “Psycho II” after striking gold with low-budget faves “Patrick” and “Road Games”? But then what happened? Yes, he worked his Hitchcockian magic on the kid’s adventure genre with “Cloak and Dagger” and made yet another incredible sequel that no one seemed to ask for with “F/X2”, but after that he moved back to his homeland to try to work on making the kind of prestigious pics his peers Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford were churning out. I think it has to do with his experience being put through the studio ringer on this simian horror flick. Initially he had the option to make what he described as “Jaws with chimps” but shelved it for almost 6 years until his frequent collaborator Everett De Roche pushed the material forward. De Roche, an American expat who made his mark in Australia, is an absolutely wonderful writer who is responsible for almost every batshit B-movie you all discovered watching “Not Quite Hollywood.” I’m sure he, as much as Franklin, was devastated when not one but two studios gutted the movie for its final release. First Universal knocked out 8 minutes, followed by EMI, the film’s UK distributor, who stripped out 5 minutes. This is one of those films where you wonder what could have been. As it stands, it is still a wonderfully effective film about a student (played by Elizabeth Shue at the height of her Karate Kid-levels of cuteness) who goes to work for an animal researcher (played by Zod) who lives and works amongst chimpanzees, including the titular butler chimp. When the old doc wants to send Link off to that great jungle up in the sky, Link loses his shit and violence ensues. That’s it. Simple, straight-forward and thrilling the way Franklin like to make ‘em. Sadly, the film is incredibly underrated and waiting in vain for a rediscovery, since the damn thing is seemingly out of print EVERYWHERE. I wish I’d held onto my VHS copy. Oh, but you can get a copy of the killer Jerry Goldsmith score on CD. Hooray for small victories.
7. Working Girls – Growing up at the height of the VHS boom, with an almost non-existent sense of parental supervision, and a voluminous swath of mom and pop stores run by a lot of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants who simply didn’t give a fuck who rented what as long as the money kept coming in…I saw a lot of shit I simply shouldn’t have at a very young age. Like this truly low-budget, cinema verite take on a day in the life of a group of women who work at an upscale NYC brothel. Funny, graphic, honest, and with a clear-cut feminist agenda, this movie quickly dispels any lurid intentions you bring in hand (pun very intended), whether you are 9, 19, or 49. Words escaped me then, and they escape me now. You just need to see it to understand what I’m talking about. Director Lizzie Borden made her mark with the even more low-budget, wildly experimental “Born in Flames”, before being castigated and shunned by politically correct 90s era Hollywood and critics alike for the much-maligned and massively misunderstood “Love Crimes”. “Working Girls” was one of the first big festival buys for the upstart Miramax Pictures, who would also finance “Love Crimes”and go on to launch and fuck up many promising careers in equal measure.
8. Castaway – Like king schlockmeister Roger Corman before them, the cousins Golan and Globus felt that they had a duty to subsidize some of the junkfood they had foisted upon the world with some avant garde and prestige pictures. Though not nearly as successful as Corman(come on, the dude helped distribute some of the best films by Bergman and Fellini) they did an okay job and often swung for the fences, even if it went wildly afoul, a la the experience of working with Godard. For this film, based on the titular journals by Lucy Irvine, they found themselves working with visual stylist and non-linear narrative enthusiast Nicolas Roeg. Now, I’m one of those guys who is so slavishly devoted to Roeg that I actually sat through “Full Body Massage”. So I have a pretty high tolerance for even the worst that Roeg has to offer. While, “Castaway” did come in the less reliable latter portion of his career, it is still a Roeg film, and one that features incredible performances by Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohoe. In fact, because of the very nature of the story at hand, Reed and Donohoe are pretty much the only performers throughout the entirety of the film. Irvine’s journals outline the story of her marriage and one year spent living on a jungle island with writer Gerald Kingsland (Reed), a man who at the time was almost 25 years her senior. Kingsland put out a personal ad, seeking a companion for his stranded sojourn and Irvine answered the call. Though the story begins about a man whose bluster and bullish nature betrays him as a bit of a strong-willed lout, it ultimately is about how this man subjugates himself to the sexuality and the ultimately more powerful will of the seeming innocent he brought along for the ride.
9. When the Wind Blows – There are those movies that no matter how incredible they are, the experience tends to leave you so shaken that repeat viewings seem highly unlikely. Usually, they tend to be very graphic, horrifying films (“Martyrs” is a more recent entry that comes to mind) but occasionally they are disquieting, simple films whose melancholic effect wraps around you like icy water, threatening to slowly pull you under. The UK animated film “When the Wind Blows” falls VERY much into that second category. It tells the story of James and Hilda, an elderly British couple spending their last, quiet days in a small village in the south on England. As the threat of a nuclear war looms large, James begins to prepare for what he sees as the eventuality of the oncoming threat. Then the attack comes. James and Hilda make it to the shelter he had built. They survived the blast. And then the real horror begins. Ok. No more can be said. If you’ve seen this, much like James, you know what’s coming. If you haven’t, you had better be prepared for a flood of tears the likes of which can only be compared to the experience of watching “Grave of the Fireflies”. Speaking of which…
10. Castle in the Sky, a.k.a. Laputa – Ever since Miramax and eventually Disney took over the admirable job of giving a wide-release to practically everything Ghibli and its founding fathers Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata have put out, audiences everywhere can now experience the breadth of a film studio whose quality of output has never been rivaled in the history of animation. (What? Oh, you wanna stump for Pixar? That’s quaint.) After Corman,Troma, and Fox did pretty piss-poor jobs of putting out some of the early Ghibli films (yeah, you forgot that Tromaput out a pretty shit version of the film that introduced Ghibli’s mascot to the world), now everyone can see these films the way they were meant to be seen. So, why don’t more fans go back and watch films like “Laputa” and “Nausicaa”? Truthfully, I think both are superior to later, better-known entries “Princess Mononoke” and “Howl’s Moving Castle”. “Laputa” contains a lot of Miyazaki’s familiar imagery and fetishes for the wonders of flight alongside the kind of whiz-bang action adventures of the kind that he first crafted as a for-hire director on “The Castle of Cagliostro” and episodes of Lupin III. It’s got the prototypical, youthful Miyazaki leads fighting off a series of ever-increasing nemeses while searching for a legendary castle in the sky (ahem, see title). There are pirates and foreign agents, and flying machines, and magical crystals, and an absolutely beautiful score by Miyazaki’s reliable and constant collaborator Joe Hisaishi (who has also wondrously collaborated numerous times with Takeshi Kitano). What more could you ask for? Oh, you don’t like animated films? And you dislike anime even more? I’m sorry. Who turned your heart to stone? Who touched you in your bad place? Is this something we can work out together? I’m sure there are support groups for that sort of thing.