Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '86 - Joe Yanick ""

Monday, June 20, 2016

Underrated '86 - Joe Yanick

Joe Yanick is a writer, editor, and film professional living and working in Brooklyn, New York. During the day, he is the festival coordinator for Visit Films, a worldwide film sales company, while he moonlights as the managing editor for Diabolique Magazine, co-host for the Small Screen Cinema Podcast, and contributing writer for Cineaste Magazine, Vice, Shock Till You Drop, and more. On Twitter @JoeYanick.
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I’d love to say that 1986 was a great year for me, but I’d be lying. In 1986, my parents were celebrating the birth of my brother and I was still two years away from being conceived. But like any child of the 90s, I grew up on a healthy dose of 80s cinema and, by my teens, had cultivated a strong appreciation. These five films represent the best aspects of what is perhaps one of the gaudiest, loudest decades to exist. 
1. Black Moon Rising (Dir: Harley Cokeliss)
While the iconic John Carpenter is best known for his directorial efforts, he has, over the course of his lengthy career, contributed to a few notable projects in other capacities. In 1986, Carpenter wrote the story and co-wrote a script for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures entitled Black Moon Rising. Despite all of its charm, the film remains one of the least talked about works from Carpenter’s filmography but it’s certainly not for lack of quality.
Black Moon Rising follows Sam Quint (Tommy Lee Jones), a thief who accepts one last job for FBI to hijack a disc of incriminating evidence against The Lucky Dollar Corporation. When Quint’s mission goes array, he is forced to stash the disc in a nearby car, but his troubles are multiplied when the car turns out to be a highly sought-after water fueled racecar prototype. In order to recover the disk, Quint is forced to team with a rogue car thief (Linda Hamilton) with ulterior motives.  

Black Moon Rising benefits from many elements that are clearly inherited from Carpenter’s presence. Jones’s Quint is sort of a hybrid of Snake Plissken (Escape from New York) and John Nada (They Live); a wisecracking, working class hero with more grit than brains. Jones is known for his stoic nature but he gives a surprisingly warm and commendable performance here. As his opposite, Linda Hamilton meets Jones pound for pound with quips and on-screen bravado. It’s a balanced relationship and one that really drives the film home. Alongside the lead, Black Moon Rising features multiple supporting faces, including a better-than-average turn by punk singer-turned-actor Lee Ving, as well as the always-reliable Robert Vaughn doing his patented heel role. 

Had John Carpenter directed Black Moon Rising, there is no doubt in my mind that it would be a much more beloved work, but that doesn’t mean that Cokeliss does a poor job. Cokeliss’s direction is a bit less energetic than Carpenter’s but, aided by the beautiful, neo-noiresque cinematography by Misha Suslov — almost channeling Carpenter’s own collaborator Dean Cundey — the end result is quite stunning to viewBlack Moon Rising is an action film that places far more emphasis on its characters than it does its plotting or high-octane set pieces and for some that will lose it points, but for those looking for a quality, well-written, and engaging work, it just might be the perfect medicine. 

2. No Retreat, No Surrender (Dir: Corey Yuen)
Karate, Kung Fu, and ninjas were a huge part of the late 80s/early 90s American mainstream. The fascination led to an influx of films orientated around the various subject matters — and often lead to a liberal mixing of the very different practices. 1986 was witness to a number of these films but my favorite — a film that I have carried with me since my childhood — is Corey Yuen’s No Retreat, No Surrender. 

No Retreat, No Surrender is a film that is drenched with 80s aesthetics. The cinematography, the music (especially the music), the dialogue, and the acting all scream it proudly. However, it’d be one thing if the film stopped at being a sort of cheesy attempt to cash in on a growing trend, something that it cannot be criticized for doing. Instead, No Retreat, No Surrender is an extremely earnest, fun, and vibrant film. 

The film is notable for being the debut for many of its collaborators. It was the first American film by the Hong Kong actor-director Corey Yeun, as well as being Kurt McKinney’s debut as a leading actor (and one of his only leading roles, for obvious reasons). Most important, however, No Retreat, No Surrender was the first major role for the muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Playing the stoic, Ivan Ivan Kraschinsky the Russian, Van Damme’s notable deficiencies as an actor in this early stage of his career are far less pronounced in No Retreat than they are in something like Cyborg, filmed three years later. Yeun, rather, capitalizes on Van Damme’s strengths as a physical presence, making the novice actor quite an imposing force. 

I won’t sit here and pretend that No Retreat is a flawless film. There are plenty of aspects that are very rough around the edges. The script does appear to be somewhat lost in translation at times — the fact that the screenwriters claim to be rewriting it nightly certainly wouldn’t help the matter —, and many of the performances are stilted, but there’s an undeniable charm to it that any fan of martial arts cinema should relate to. 

3. River’s Edge (Dir: Tim Hunter)
Though I am skeptical of bandying the term around tooliberally, River’s Edge is one of the punkest films ever crafted. Loosely based on the true story of a teenager who murdered his girlfriend only to keep the body around to show his friends over the course of a few daysNeal Jimenez’s script transforms the grizzly story into a moving and (quite frankly) brilliant portrait of teenage malaise;among the best ever put to screen. In the same way that Richard Linklater’s Slacker captures the banality of everyday life for a burgeoning generation of aimless youth, Hunter’s work analyzes a post-Hippie generation, a lost generation eager to find meaning in their lives but coming up short.
What surprised me the most upon seeing the film for the first time was just how angry it was, but like the cast of character’s it is an unfiltered, unmotivated, and sympathetic anger. It rings of an anti-authoritarian sentiment, but has the benefit of being almost exclusively set in a teenage, lawless reality. Adults are either untrusting, absent, disconnected, or worse to the teenagers. They offer no support structure.Neither Hunter nor Jimenez spend their efforts looking to judge the characters for the actions but rather place their focus on analyzing the elements that could cause them to behave in such a manner. It’s not pretty but it’s honest. 

Hunter casted the film in a near-perfect manner, each character offering a slight variation on the slacker image. Keanu Reeves hands in one of the best performances of his career, while Crispin Glover offers one of his most alienating and bizarre. While teetering on the edge, Glover’s work is just grounded enough to not drag the film down, although mileage will surely vary for some (and many find it to be the comic relief the film needs). Stealing the show, as usual, Dennis Hopper delivers a haunting turn as Feck, the town lunatic with a dark secret. Following one of the most memorable performances of his career in Blue VelvetRiver’s Edge gave Hopper the chance to return to the charismatic maniac character-type, only with greater emotional results in River’s Edge. Ironically, despite Feck’s manic and unpredictable nature, he acts as the moral compass of the film; a murderer who is was driven by passion. Far from absolving his crimes, the film paints his actions as driven by motivation, an aspect that seems to be lost on the younger cast of characters.  

River’s Edge is a true gem on the late 1980s, a film that is deeply nuanced and one that is an important part of cinema history. River’s Edge should be seen by all film fans

4. Hands of Steel (Dir: Sergio Martino)
By 1986, Italian exploitation cinema was reaching critical mass. They had just about run the gamut on every subgenre imaginable and funding was drying up. However, despite the limited resources, there are a few notable nuggets from the late 1980s and 1986’s Hands of Steel is probably the best of the bunch. 

Directed by the veteran Sergio Martino, Hands of Steel is a mixture between the post-apocalyptic films that the country had already been producing (of which Martino is notable for 2019: After the Fall of New York) and Terminator (released only two years prior). The film follows PacoQueruak (Daniel Greene), a cyborg hired to assassinate the leader of a movement set on saving the world from its dystopian fate. It features most of the familiar elements of the aforementioned genres but does provide a stylish spin thanks to the talents of Martino’s direction. It must be noted that also aiding the film is Claudio Simonetti’s synth-laden score – due for a reissue, but, so is the film itself. 

Daniel Greene is not the most impressive actor but Greene’s stunted acting actually is in service of the film’s script. His robotic nature only aids the non-human traits of his character. Alongside Greene, John Saxon is cast as the leader of the evil corporation, Francis Turner, who is set on profiting from the dying planet. As is the case with most of these Italian exploitation titles, there is a strong political message but it does get lost in the more ridiculous elements of the film. Speaking of ridiculous, George Eastman hands in one of my favorite performances in his career, as Raul Morales, a fierce competitor on the underground arm-wrestling circuit (oddly beating Over the Top to the punch by a full year). The arm wrestling scenes are among the film’s most fun and bizarre elements. 

Hands of the Steel is a wild ride. Sure, it’s cheap and not Martino’s most visionary work, but there is something infectious about it. 

5. Mona Lisa (Dir: Neil Jordan)
The third film from Neil Jordan (just following his cult classic arthouse horror, The Company of WolvesMona Lisa is a British neo-noir that, despite receiving love from both the Criterion Collection and, more recently, Arrow Video, remains an underappreciated and under-seen title. This is a shame because, led by a brilliant performance from Bob Hoskins, Mona Lisa is one of the best human portraits of crime and passion in Britain’s seedy underbelly. 

In Mona LisaHoskin’s stars as George, an aging and out of practice criminal resigned to take on a job as the personal chauffer for a high-end prostitute named Simone (Cathy Tyson) when he is set free from prison. When the odd couple forms an unlikely bond, George and Simone find themselves set against a dangerous crime boss (played by the ever-reliable Michael Caine). 

Mona Lisa does take the backseat to Hoskin’s other, far more praised neo-noir The Long Good Friday, but while it is a slightly inferior product, there are elements in Mona Lisa that far exceed the grittier and more violent predecessor. The heart of Mona Lisa lies in the beautiful bond between George and Simone. When analyzed as an alternative take on a love story, Mona Lisa emerges as one of the most rewarding and fascinating crime films in British cinema’s history. 

Mona Lisa is also a masterclass in performances, with Hoskins, Tyson, and Caine all delivering phenomenal turns in their respective roles. Mona Lisa may not be the feel good movie of the 1980s but in all of its grim and dark corners exists a resounding effort.

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