Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '86 - Rik Tod Johnson ""

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Underrated '86 - Rik Tod Johnson

Rik Tod Johnson is a dedicated cinephile who can be found writing at The Cinema 4 Pylon:
Here is an Underrrated '96 list he did for RPS as well:
He can be found on Twitter @TheCinema4Pylon:

Down by Law
Dir.: Jim Jarmusch
When I walked into the Capri Cinema in 1985 and saw Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise, I had no idea what I was in for and just how elated I would ultimately be when I left the tiny independent Anchorage theatre at the film's end. While, at that point in my youth, I had already opened myself up to the worlds of Lynch and Cronenberg -- which often existed in buzzing discomfort slightly outside of our reality -- Jarmusch's off-kilter scenes served to make his work seem to me to be at least a spiritual cousin to those filmmakers, but his characters were far more recognizably within our own world. I fell instantly in love with Stranger Than Paradise, and saw it several times over in a very brief span. When his follow-up film, Down by Law, came to the same theatre the next year, I was there the first showing. And I wasn't sorry. I was listening to a lot of Tom Waits in those years, and was gleeful that Jarmusch had added the theatrically focused singer-songwriter to his stock company of actors, alongside Stranger star, musician John Lurie. A leisurely road comedy about three escaped prisoners, Down by Law's third star was a then largely unknown (in America) Roberto Benigni. Benigni took me completely by surprise; with his fractured English and odd delivery, I thought his act was a total put-on, but I was laughing so hard that I absolutely bought into it regardless of intentions. When Roberto returned a few years later in Jarmusch's Night on Earth as a cab driver, I was delighted (especially since he is the best part of that film). But it wasn't until I saw Johnny Stecchino later that same year (1991) that I began to realize the breadth of his talent. Outside of my then-friend (who shall remain forever nameless) with whom I first devoured Stranger Than Paradise, I never had much success in getting others to commit to Jarmusch's minimalist, character-driven style at the time. I took a few friends to another showing of Down by Law, and they each seemed underwhelmed by the film. Over the years, I have found that some friends have taken to his later films (Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, Coffee and Cigarettes), but I wish they would seek out his early films and hopefully capture the same joy that I did when I first encountered his undeniably odd work.

Absolute Beginners
Dir.: Julian Temple
I recently watched Absolute Beginners again for the first time in several years, and I must admit that for the first half hour or so, it seemed that the love that I once had for the film had dissipated. While the movie is widely considered to be a failure at the box office, after I saw it in the theatre for the first time in 1986, I dragged a group of friends to it the next day, and another group later that week. So I did my part in selling tickets to it. No one seemed to love or even like it as much as me -- which is not unusual in my main gang; we often have splits of this nature: my reckless weaving through all of cinema and their preference for more mainstream entertainment -- and maybe they were right about not embracing it. But I found so much to adore at the time. I just had to own the soundtrack LP (it did have Bowie, Paul Weller, Slim Gaillard, and Ray Davies on it after all), and I fell instantly in love with blonder than blonde Patsy Kensit as the adorable but unfaithful Crêpe Suzette. The movie was loud and vibrant and flashy, with several meticulously designed set pieces, and taken on its own terms is a marvelous construct (if not film) to behold. Even if the tone of the thing is all over the place, sometimes in the same scene, Temple's direction and the score at least ensured that the eyes and ears would be pleased. To its detriment though, the film version of Absolute Beginners is also deeply and thoroughly superficial, something that I totally got at first glance but chose to ignore in order to enjoy its snazzy, jazzy trappings. A couple of years later, I finally read Colin MacInnes' source novel, and realized just how much more vibrant the story was on the written page. But the book didn't have Bowie, Weller, Gaillard, or Davies, and so in my heart and head, I stuck with A.B.: The Movie Version. On the recent watch, the superficiality nagged at me harder that first half hour or so, but eventually the energy of the film burned that attitude away from me, and I came to an understanding within myself that, sure, it may not be the book, but it is simply a stunning film on a visual level. Another bonus is that Beginners also very dark and quick-witted, so if you need something else to propel you through this twisted look at late '50s British teen pop culture, let the humor guide you inside, and then stay to discover that there is something rather frightening lurking in the back end of the film ("If you go out in the woods today...") that surprised me completely that first time and still hits me hard today.

X: The Unheard Music
Dir.: W. T. Morgan
If you are a fan of the L.A. punk scene from the late '70s and early '80s, then you know the band X. I am not necessarily a fan of the scene itself (I didn't grow up down here, and I was anything but a punk in style and stance), but even trapped in Alaska as a teenager/young adult, I knew X. While, to this day, I enjoyed the noise and snarl of hardcore punk, what appealed to me about X were their depth and far more humanist lyrical approach than most bands of their time. Not content to simply yell angrily about a perceived sleight by society or problem in the world, X often drew sharply delineated character portraits whose lives were either shattered or transformed by such sleights and problems. For me, the great difficulty was that I lived in a place where X never got close to touring, so I didn't have a chance to see them live during their heyday. But I eventually did get to watch, belatedly as it were (and on cable nonetheless), this 1986 documentary, giving me not only an up close and personal look with each equally charismatic member of the band (though co-lead singer Exene remains the most enigmatic of the bunch), but also around numerous live performances of songs from their early catalogue. There is no attempt to give us a by-the-numbers biography of X; the approach is, in the DIY style of a '70s punk 'zine, rather cut-and-paste, jumping both nervously and casually from moment to moment, sped up, slowed down, mixed up with film clips, poetry readings, fan letters, and oddball street interviewees, and the film is all the better for it. Sure, you could say X as a band sold out a bit as the mid-'80s beckoned (Wild Thing cover version anyone?) -- though I didn't really care what anyone said; I still loved them -- but the early X (at least through those first four vital albums) was a barnburner of a band by anyone's measure. We are fortunate to have this document of those days.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
Dir.: Tobe Hooper

This is going to sound borderline blasphemous to horror fans, but in some ways, I prefer Tobe Hooper's sequel to his own 1974 classic featuring Leatherface and his murderous, weirdo family. Assuredly, I am a huge fan of the original Chainsaw (my gorehound pals and I used to be able to refer to it as just Saw, until an actual film with that title came along years later). And there is a huge difference in tone between the original and this far too belated sequel. But man, what a crazy, hilarious ride Chainsaw 2 is! Honestly, after having seen the original around thirty times before seeing this in a theatre, I had no hope in my heart at all that it would even be any good. And then I laughed my ass off like mad for ninety minutes (with the film, not at it) and then walked out of the theatre going, "What just hit me?" Naturally, I turned back around and watched it again right away. In one of the most fortuitous casting choices ever, Dennis Hopper shows up as a former Texas Ranger decidedly obsessed with solving the murders. Hopper was involved in one of the greatest comeback years in show business in 1986; his other films included Blue Velvet, Hoosiers (for which he would get an Oscar nomination), and River's Edge. So, Chainsaw 2 probably felt like the odd film out to him, but of the four films, this is my second favorite of his roles. His job here is equally as unhinged as Frank Booth in Velvet, only on the other side of the moral divide and without (I presume) the use of pharmaceuticals, and Hopper gets to deliver some marvelously gonzo dialogue at the top of his lungs as he does chainsaw battle with the various members of the family. Best, and creepiest, of all though is Bill Moseley as Chop Top, brother to Leatherface, and a Vietnam vet who scratches his metal-plated head with a wire hanger and devours bit of his own flesh, while saying grand lines like, "Look what you did to my Sonny Bono wig-do!" Chainsaw 2 has its adherents, even at the time though the film did only OK at the box office, though the critics of the day were not kind overall. That critical view has shifted to the positive today, but I still feel the film has somewhat slipped between the cracks over the years. And that is a shame. Sure, Chainsaw 2 could never have the shock of the new, but as a horror film with deeply satirical roots, it is a fine, gory, goony time on its own terms. 

Dir.: Oliver Stone
Hugely overshadowed by Stone's other 1986 theatrical release, PlatoonSalvador never got the shake it deserved. I feel it is a better film overall than Platoon, buoyed by a balls-to-the-wall performance by an even more nervy than usual James Woods. Salvador is solid proof that a film that has been nominated for multiple Academy Awards (for lead actor and original screenplay) can still be considered "underrated". Naturally, in a film where the side opposing U.S. interests in the region are comprised of left wing revolutionaries, Stone is going to align with the rebels. So if you are prone to simply write him off for his personal political stance... well, then we have little to speak of together. And you would then be missing out on an exceedingly powerful film. In 1986, as a young twenty-something, I kept an uneasy eye on the news, knowing full well that our government was hand-stroking a great many countries (often aligned with dictators and despots, it turns out, in ways that seems to go against our country's stated ethics and aims). I remember the news reports on the four American nuns who were raped and murdered by El Salvadoran national guardsmen (you know, part of the regime that we were supporting), and the controversy over America's goals in the region. I thought for sure that at any moment they were going to open up the draft again. Those murders are a key aspect of Salvador's plot, a fictionalized version of real-life journalist Richard Boyle's yearlong (1980-81) ordeal in the country. When Salvador came out, it was almost the type of movie that I automatically wished to avoid, simply because I found the subject matter uncomfortable. But it had Woods in it, then one of my favorite actors (I still love him onscreen, but he is, in the vernacular, seriously cray-cray). I did not want to miss a single film of his, so I just had to go to Salvador, and I was blown away by it. But the film received little love at the box office, even with the Oscar noms, and most people with whom I have discussed it have never seen the film. It has been years since I last watched Salvador (probably about twenty), but most of the imagery has never left me. Haunting and nerve-wracking.

Trouble in Mind
Dir.: Alan Rudolph
"Greed, like fire, transforms." It was strange then; it is strange now. Alan Rudolph's films have always been slightly off the Hollywood track, and Trouble in Mind is further off than most of his output. I saw the film at exactly the right time and in the right mood, when I was still developing an addiction for fare that didn't necessarily follow the "movie rules," or was at least willing to turn them onto their heads. This one solidified Rudolph in my mind as a filmmaker to whom I would return time and again (at least for a few years). Time, setting, characters... they are all fluid here. Is it the '40s (the Mark Isham soundtrack, featuring Marianne Faithfull's croaking but gloriously entrancing rasp, seems to point that way at first), the '70s (the cars, the initial costuming), or the slightly futuristic (though never science fiction-style) '90s? Or is it all three? Does time matter at all here? The city (played by Seattle, but also by a purposefully obvious scale model) is portrayed as a ravenous monster that turns nearly everyone against their better nature once they walk onto its streets. The hero is a cop who outright murdered someone, and feels no remorse at all for his actions (and he's a little "rape-y" to boot). But he is also the calm, all-seeing center of the storm. Seemingly ordinary, straight edge characters suddenly start dressing, fixing their hair, and wearing makeup like members of a new wave band. There are also a couple of tonal shifts that seem out of place, but are absolutely vital to the film's maintenance of its overall oddness. Best of all, the main villain is played by Divine, whose quick-tongued but ultimately scary performance here makes you lament his early passing all the more. The main cast -- Kris Kristofferson, Keith Carradine, Geneviève Bujold, Lori Singer, Joe Morton -- give us no more than we expect from them (and this is not a knock), but they all seem cooler for just hanging out at Rudolph's strange, noir-driven party. [Note: Trouble in Mind's copyright is 1985, but was not released to theatres until 1986, which is when I saw it.]

And to provide a base, here is a list of my other favorite films of 1986 (none of which, I feel, are underrated at all): Blue Velvet, The Fly, Aliens, Castle in the Sky, Big Trouble in Little China, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Stand by Me, Sid and Nancy, Something Wild, Manhunter, Ruthless People.


WorkingDead said...

Another great list that pretty much doubles as a list of things I'll be tracking down over the next couple weeks. Surprisingly, or, really, no surprisingly, I've only seen 2 of the films on this list, and the others are instantly higher on my priorities list.

The Movie Waffler said...

Had IMDB not listed it as 1985, Trouble in Mind would have topped my list too.

Rik Tod Johnson said...

Trouble in Mind indeed premiered in LA in December 1985, it was not released to theatres nationwide until March of 1986. As the film is tied completely to the year 1986 for me due to other outside circumstances, I have to consider it as being from that year.