Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '87 - Jim Hemphill ""

Monday, March 13, 2017

Underrated '87 - Jim Hemphill

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film THE TROUBLE WITH THE TRUTH, starring Lea Thompson and John Shea (and now streaming on Amazon Prime). His writing on cinema has appeared in Film Comment, American Cinematographer and Filmmaker Magazine, and he writes a monthly column on TV for the Talkhouse website. He is a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles and blogs at

Amazon Women on the Moon: Kentucky Fried Movie director John Landis returned to the anthology comedy format that put him on the map with this inventive parody, a movie designed to replicate the experience of channel surfing in the middle of the night. Landis produces and shares directing duties with four other helmers (Joe Dante, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Horton, and Robert K. Weiss), who each contribute several sketches riffing on everything from public service announcements and celebrity roasts to 1950s B-movies. Landis and Dante’s segments in particular are hilarious; no director (with the possible exception of Frank Tashlin) has ever been better at turning the detritus of pop culture into art than Dante, and Amazon Women provides him with ample opportunities to do what he does best. Several of his short films here – “Bullshit or Not,” “Critics’ Corner,” and “Reckless Youth” in particular – are funnier and more thoughtfully directed than most directors’ features. Speaking of features, Dante also directed one of the best movies he (or anybody else) ever made earlier in 1987, Innerspace, but I think it would be a stretch to call that one “underrated” given the way its reputation has grown in recent years.
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Disorderlies: A guilty pleasure in the truest sense – no film makes me feel guiltier in my adoration of it, and no film gives me more pleasure. There are movies I love as much as Disorderlies – Boogie Nights, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Magnificent Ambersons, GoodFellas – but none I love more. It is, in its own way, sheer perfection. The movie stars rap trio The Fat Boys as incompetent orderlies hired to look after millionaire Ralph Bellamy; the conceit is that Bellamy’s nephew hopes they’ll kill his rich uncle, allowing him to inherit the old man’s fortune. Director Michael Schultz uses this premise as the springboard for a series of gags so lowbrow that they make The Three Stooges look like Ernst Lubitsch – everything in the movie, from the predictably endless fat jokes to the deafeningly mixed cartoonish sound effects, is geared toward the opposite of subtlety. The Fat Boys are so ill at ease on screen that they back up when the camera moves in on them, and watching their amateurish approach to…well, I don’t know what it is (acting would be too generous a term), alongside Bellamy’s old school timing and professionalism is endlessly fascinating. The movie is, to my taste, consistently sidesplitting for reasons both intentional and otherwise, and it has a killer soundtrack to boot – not just some good rap, but the best Bon Jovi song (“Edge of a Broken Heart”) EVER.
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Ishtar: The ultimate underrated film of its era – not only is it not as bad as its reputation would suggest, it’s a flat-out masterpiece. Writer-director Elaine May juggles dozens of balls and keeps them all in the air, creating a film that’s simultaneously a wickedly funny and poignant portrait of show business desperation; an incisive, prescient, and scathing satire of America’s foreign policy in the Middle East; and a road movie a la Hope and Crosby, complete with memorable songs. Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman give two of their most relaxed, charming performances – which is really something given the reported agony that everyone went through on the set. Production history aside, however, the end result, if judged without bias or agenda, is pure cinematic bliss, personal filmmaking on an epic scale – and is all the more valuable now, in a period when nothing like it could possibly get made within the studio system.
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Light of Day: Paul Schrader invokes the spirit of John Cassavetes (complete with Gena Rowlands in a major role) and fuses that director’s approach with his own spiritual and ethical preoccupations in this terrific portrait of the role of music in small town life. Much like Jim Jarmusch’s recent Paterson, Light of Day is a movie about the day-to-day life of artists who don’t make their living practicing their art; in this case it’s a brother and sister team of musicians played by Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett. In his typical fashion, Schrader digs deep for anthropological detail and really gets into the way working class bar bands interact and operate, depicting music’s capacity for liberation in a way that’s totally unique to the cinema – at least until Alan Parker made The Commitments a few years later. The musical material intersects with a tale of familial reconciliation that’s deeply moving and the closest Schrader has come to achieving the “transcendental style” he wrote about in his book on Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer; unfortunately, the movie’s box office failure and Schrader’s own bizarre dismissal of it as one of his worst works have led the picture to be criminally forgotten.
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Who’s That Girl?: Madonna’s ubiquity in the late 1980s was such that it made it impossible to divorce anything she did from a wider – and sometimes oppressive – cultural context, placing expectations on her film work that were sometimes unreasonable and at odds with the movies’ actual aspirations. This was never truer than in the case of Who’s That Girl?, a delightful riff on 1930s and ’40s screwball comedies that was unfairly savaged by critics in spite of its elegant construction, expert sense of composition and movement, and breezily charming performances (particularly by Griffin Dunne in the male lead). The movie was directed by James Foley, who remains underrated in spite of having directed several movies (At Close Range, After Dark My Sweet, Glengarry Glen Ross) that are acknowledged as terrific by pretty much everyone who has seen them. Foley’s craftsmanship is old-fashioned in the best sense (he’s incapable of putting the camera in the wrong place or framing a bland image), but he has a visceral, modern muscularity that makes his films pulse with energy. Who’s That Girl? is his lightest movie, but on closer viewing one of his most impressive.
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1 comment:

beamish13 said...

Great list. In SCHRADER ON SCHRADER, Paul speaks about regretting casting Joan Jett in LIGHT OF DAY, feeling that she didn't mesh with his intentions, but I think she's much more credible and interesting in it than Michael J. Fox.