Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film THE TROUBLE WITH THE TRUTH, starring Lea Thompson and John Shea. His writing on cinema has appeared in Film Comment, American Cinematographer and Filmmaker Magazine, and he writes a monthly column on politics and film for the Talkhouse website. He is a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles and blogs at www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
Eight Million Ways to Die: Oliver Stone had one hell of a year in 1986, directing not one but two of the best American films of all time – Salvador and Platoon. He also scripted this pitch-black modern-day noir directed by Hal Ashby, who was fired from the film before he had a chance to edit it – a curious choice on the part of the financiers given that Ashby (who won an Oscar for editing In the Heat of the Night) was known as a director whose most significant work was done in the cutting room. There’s no question that Eight Million Ways to Die has some peculiar rhythms and reeks of studio interference, but it’s also jammed to the hilt with interesting stuff: a spectacular early performance by Andy Garcia as the villain, equally strong work by Jeff Bridges as the film’s alcoholic protagonist, and a gloriously seedy quality that echoes another great noir from 1986, John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pickup. Ashby’s flair for catching life on the fly combined with Stone’s penchant for anthropological detail makes this a riveting, eerily beautiful portrait of L.A. sleaze in the mid-80s; having De Palma stalwart Stephen Burum behind the lens as cinematographer doesn’t hurt.
Maximum Overdrive: After years of bitching about how hacks like Stanley Kubrick were screwing up his books, Stephen King got behind the camera himself to direct this adaptation of his short story Trucks. A tale of machines coming to life to wreak havoc upon the human race, it’s a true guilty pleasure in the best sense – I can’t really defend it on any aesthetic, moral, or technical level, but any movie that opens with a soda machine killing off a little league team before a steamroller comes in to finish off the job is my kind of entertainment. (The crazy score by AC/DC is a nice touch.) Interesting bit of trivia: cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi lost an eye during shooting, yet still went on to photograph Roger Corman’s final directorial effort, Frankenstein Unbound.
The Whoopee Boys: Michael O’Keefe and Paul Rodriguez star in this unsung comic treasure, a hilarious and very well directed (by a very interesting and underrated director, John Byrum) tale of two doofuses who make their way from New York to Florida and hatch a somewhat convoluted scheme for O’Keefe to pass himself off as a member of polite society so that he can marry a young heiress. The plot is just a pretext for a barrage of comic set pieces and one-liners that range from the vulgar and crass to the witty and sophisticated, nearly all of which (to my sense of humor, anyway) land beautifully. There’s a brilliant sequence at the world’s worst finishing school that features brilliant supporting turns by Eddie Deezen, Marsha Warfield and others, and the whole movie is cast from top to bottom with terrific actors. Where else are you going to get Denholm Elliott, Taylor Negron, and Joe Spinell in the same movie?
Under the Cherry Moon: I can't help but wonder if this film – viewed as a catastrophe when it was released in the summer of 1986 – will be revisited and reevaluated in light of Prince’s recent passing. I sure hope so, because – and I mean this passionately and without irony – it’s superior to the far better known and reviewed Purple Rain in just about every way. Along with Blade Runner it gets my vote for one of the two best looking movies of the decade; the cinematographer was Fassbinder and Scorsese regular Michael Ballhaus, whose every frame is an exquisite work of formal beauty (shot in shimmering black and white, no less). The Fassbinder connection is a clue to what writer-director Prince is up to in this story of a con man and gigolo who falls for an heiress (what was with the proliferation of movies about guys running cons on heiresses in 1986?): not meant to be taken literally, his film is a fantasia of dreamy moments from other movies – particularly Lubitsch comedies, Astaire and Rodgers musicals, and…well, just about every other movie Prince ever saw and loved. Audacious, outrageous, and impeccably directed, it’s a one-of-a-kind musical/comedy/romance/melodrama with – doesn’t this go without saying? – a killer soundtrack.
The Best of Times: For my money, Ron Shelton is the greatest living American screenwriter, and this is an early gem of his that foreshadows the masterpieces (Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, Tin Cup) to come. Robin Williams plays a small-town banker who’s haunted by the big football game he blew in high school; Kurt Russell is the best friend who joins forces with him to get the old teams back together so that they can replay the big game. Like the best of Shelton’s later films, The Best of Times has a relaxed charm so entertaining that you don’t realize how deeply the movie is working on you until well into the second half – the movie starts off as small town farce and slowly but steadily becomes a poignant meditation on what it means to succeed and fail in America. (In lesser writers’ hands comedies are populated by characters who become jokes – for Shelton the jokes become characters.) The film is full of huge topics expressed via the most delicate, subtle characterizations and dialogue – it not only invites but earns comparison with the best of Preston Sturges in its loving depiction of a fully realized ensemble of smart, silly, romantic, self-destructive, heroic losers. Or are they winners?